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Last week's Masters was in some ways a validation of the Canadian Tour. Chris DiMarco's presence on the leaderboard for much of the tournament -- he led well into the third round -- should make Canadian Tour officials proud. DiMarco gained a lot of confidence in 1992, when he played the Canadian Tour.

That year DiMarco led the Canadian Tour's Order of Merit without winning a tournament. His stroke average, the lowest of any player, was 69.52. That's impressive golf anywhere, let alone on tournament courses.

DiMarco, who tied for 10th in his first Masters, was hardly the only competitor there who had gained experience on the Canadian Tour. Kirk Triplett, Steve Stricker and Mike Weir also played there. Triplett tied for sixth at the Masters, Stricker for 10th and Weir for 27th.

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Weir, of course, has become a top player. He contends frequently although he's won only two tournaments. Triplett, DiMarco and Stricker have also won on the PGA Tour; Stricker's most recent win was the Accenture Match Play Championship in Melbourne, Australia, last January.

It's obvious that professional golfers need places where they can test and measure themselves. DiMarco, Triplett, Stricker and Weir learned they could compete as pros when they played the Canadian Tour.

"I wouldn't trade the experience for anything," Triplett, whose first PGA Tour win was last year's Nissan Open in Los Angeles, has said of playing the Canadian Tour, and also in Asia and Australia. "I learned so much not only about golf but about myself."

Weir, who won the 1993 Tournament Players Championship on the Canadian Tour and led the 1997 Order of Merit, has said his exposure to pro golf in Canada was invaluable.

"It was important to get into contention as often as possible and to see how I felt compared to when I was an amateur," Weir said.

Stricker, perhaps more than any golfer, is a poster player for the Canadian Tour. That's because of the shape his career took after he played in Canada. He won the 1993 Canadian PGA Championship and finished second on the Canadian Tour's money list that year. His success got him an exemption into the Canadian Open at the Glen Abbey Golf Club.

Stricker led for the first two rounds at the Abbey, and tied for fourth in the end. The next year, 1994, he was the rookie of the year.

"I know I'm a rookie out there this year," Stricker said then, "but I really think I have played my rookie year in Canada. When I came out here [the PGA Tour]I was not as nervous or as intimidated as I thought I might be. I think that Canadian Open fourth place taught me a lot. I learned more in that one tournament than in a whole year of competition."

That's what young professional golfers need: competition. They've been getting it in Canada for a long time. The Canadian Tour has been around in one form or another since 1971, when it was called the Peter Jackson Tour. It has a place in the game.

That place is as a developmental tour, which is what its commissioner, Jacques Burelle, has been calling it for a long time. Call it a satellite tour or a minor-league tour or the equivalent of Double-A baseball. Whatever its designation, the Canadian Tour seems to have found and accepted its identity as a place for mostly younger players to learn what it's like to play for their livelihoods.

This isn't to say that the Canadian Tour is sure to thrive. It's still a hodgepodge of tournaments across the country and a few in the United States -- four this year and six in 2002 that are televised on The Golf Channel. With the odd exception, the purses rarely get above $150,000 (Cdn.), so it's difficult for players to make much money. The economy is not exactly in great shape, so there's no reason to expect that the purses will rise.

Still, only the best players can go directly from college to the PGA Tour and do well. Most golfers need somewhere to sound their games out. The Canadian Tour provides that, and the list of former players there who are doing well on the PGA Tour proves its value.

The Masters was a showcase for the best golfer in the game -- a genius who rarely makes mistakes while his opponents wilt in various ways. You know his name. But other names -- Weir, DiMarco, Stricker, Triplett -- inadvertently showcased the Canadian Tour. That's worth remembering when the Canadian Tour shows up in your part of the country. lhruben@attglobal.net

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