The Pete Dye Golf Club’s 7,308 yards of undulation rank third in length — and perhaps higher in degree of difficulty — on the Nationwide Tour.

Although Ken Duke didn’t see the course until Monday, he isn’t likely to be as awed as some other PGA Tour-wannabes among the Nationwide regulars might be when the second-tier circuit returns Thursday for 72 holes on the reclaimed coal mine layout at Bridgeport.

That’s because Duke played on the PGA Tour in 2004, the year the National Mining Association Pete Dye Classic made its Nationwide debut. He has played among the big boys, and he’s primed for a return in 2007.

“I haven’t played there, but it’s kind of interesting that my mother-in-law once sold memberships there for Jimmy LaRosa,” Duke said by phone from his Boca Raton, Fla., home. “I’ve heard a lot of great things about the course. I’ve heard you don’t get anything easy.

“I’ve been told it’s very similar to a lot of courses you play on the PGA Tour. You’ve really got to work the ball well onto the greens, and you’ve got to get onto the right tier of the greens.”

Duke ranks sixth on the Nationwide Tour money list with $225,651. At season’s end, the top 20 Nationwide winners graduate to the PGA Tour. Duke, a native Arkansan, said the $600,000 Pete Dye Classic has become an “important” stop in only its third year.

“The date change (from mid-July) should help because of where it is now on the schedule,” said Duke, 37, who got his first career Nationwide Tour victory in the BMW Charity Pro-Am at the Cliffs, in the Carolinas in April. “You’re starting to head down the stretch. The bigger purse makes a difference.

“I doubt many, if any, of the top money winners will skip it. The players want to get into that top 20 or stay there. I wanted to be fresh to play the Pete Dye, and I’d played five weeks in a row, so I skipped Scranton (the Northeast Pennsylvania Classic, over the weekend).”

Only two of the nine 2006 Nationwide stops after Pete Dye have larger purses than the West Virginia stop, including the season-ending Nationwide Tour Championship in early November in Houston.

Duke played the Nationwide Tour in 2003, finishing 33rd on the money list. His advancement to the PGA Tour came via a 12th-place finish in the ’03 PGA Tour National Qualifying Tournament.

“The big difference is the atmosphere,” said Duke, whose best PGA Tour finish in 2004 was a ninth-place tie at the Reno-Tahoe Open. “The crowds, the noise ... people are just everywhere.

“The setup (of holes) on the PGA Tour is just a lot more difficult, for the most part. You just have to find yourself a comfort zone and block out everything as best as you can. On the Nationwide Tour, the galleries are a lot smaller.

“As far as who’s hitting the balls at the holes, there’s not a lot of difference. It’s how you cope with the atmosphere.”

Duke played 30 PGA Tour events in 2004, making the cut in 14.

He finished 166th on the money list (the top 125 retain their Tour card) and returned to the Nationwide Tour, where the father of two placed 47th on the money list last year.

He played two PGA stops this season, finishing in a tie for 26th at Doral and a 14th-place tie at the Wachovia in Charlotte, N.C.

In the last month, Duke has had third- and eight-place Nationwide finishes at Springfield, Mo., and Omaha, Neb., respectively.

“I’ve been playing pretty well this year; I’m encouraged,” said Duke, who claims his biggest golf thrill was a practice round with Jack Nicklaus at the British Open nine summers ago.

“I’ve done some different things this year ... a change in equipment and a change in my game.

“Instead of hitting a draw, I’m hitting a fade. It’s made a big difference for me. We’ll see if it works at Pete Dye.”

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