Tim Finchem's new plan will require all prospective Tour players to pass through Q-school.
David Cannon / Getty Images
By Gary Van Sickle
Thursday, March 22, 2012

Orlando, Fla. -- Read my lips, commissioner. The PGA Tour is now a closed shop.
 
It's pretty simple. You can only qualify for the PGA Tour after you spend an entire season on the Nationwide tour. That's right, you have to serve a minimum one-year apprenticeship before you can play in the big leagues.
 
The definition of a closed shop is that it's not open to all. The PGA Tour isn't open to all. Hence, it's a closed shop.
 
Maybe the Tour's new system is OK. Maybe it's good for players to get a year of quality tournament competition under their belts. That's an argument. Fine. Just don't try to tell me it's not a closed shop. It is.
 
Commissioner Tim Finchem was asked this exact question earlier this week when he announced the changes.
 
"The data doesn't support that. Our best guess is that you might have, might have, a slight increase in cards, the 50 cards that are being awarded, compared to the current system."
 
The data doesn't support it? What data? You can't get to the PGA Tour except by way of the Nationwide Tour. We don't need no stinkin' data.
 
Sure, you could maybe get a sponsor's exemption or win a spot in a field via Monday qualifying and then win a Tour event, but that pretty much never happens, and a lot of the sponsors' exemptions go to friends of friends or friends of the sponsor or the sons and grandsons of former PGA Tour players. You can look it up.
 
On the Champions Tour, if you win one of the few spots available at Q-school, all you win is the right to try to Monday qualify for each tournament. The PGA Tour now seems to want to make it more difficult for talent to get on its tour, too.
 
A year on the Nationwide Tour for paltry purses is not unlike indentured servitude, which was practiced a few centuries ago.
 
This whole Q-school makeover happened because the PGA Tour lost Nationwide as the umbrella sponsor and is trying to whip up some kind of FedEx Cup-like, gee-whiz playoff system to sucker some corporation into sponsoring it. Why does the tour need to replace Nationwide? Oh, that's right, because Jack Nicklaus and his Memorial Tournament lost their sponsor and and grabbed Nationwide. And if you're Nationwide, would you rather be involved with Nicklaus or a minor league? That's an easy call.
 
The changes that Finchem announced were not a big surprise. They've been in the news for months. The only surprise was that the Tour made the announcement official even though it doesn't know how this new system is going to work yet. I'm not kidding. In my 30-plus years of covering golf, I've never seen an announcement about something that had so few very important details worked out.

Can you imagine NASA holding a press conference like that? It might go like this:

"Um, attention everyone, we're going to land a man on Mars in two years."

How are you going to do that?

"Well, we don't exactly know. Our committee is still studying that. But we've put a lot of time and effort into the project, and we think this is going to be a better way to do it."

Are you close to figuring out a way to land a man on Mars?

"We are in  discussions with several different experts, but close might not be the right word."

Come on, man.

The top 75 money-winners on the Nationwide Tour will advance to a three-tournament series along with the 75 players who finished 126th to 200th on the PGA Tour money list. When the dust clears, 50 of them are going to have cards to play on the PGA Tour the following season. At Q-school, only Nationwide spots will be up for grabs.

So are they going to start from scratch and play three tourneys dead even? How will we keep score -- the 50 guys who win the most money in three events? Total cumulative score versus par? Another indecipherable points system like the FedEx Cup? The Tour doesn't know.

And if the players aren't going to compete on a level playing field, what kind of edge will be built in? Should the guy who's No. 1 on the Nationwide money list rank ahead of the guy who was 126th on the PGA Tour? Or vice versa? The Tour doesn't know that either.

If I were No. 1 on the Nationwide tour, I'd wonder why I have to go play three more tournaments to get my card. Didn't I spend a whole year as an apprentice and get to No. 1 to ensure that I got a card? Under the current system, the top 25 Nationwide players get their Tour cards. Finchem said that might be preserved through seeding, making it so the top 25 would only be playing for position in the three-tournament series, not their cards. But still, why make them play more if they've already established themselves over an entire season? Maybe the top 10 on the Nationwide money list should just be given cards, and everyone else can play for the other 40 spots.

And what, exactly, did the player who had an abominable year and finished 200th on the PGA Tour money list do to deserve another chance? The best player coming out of college or amateur golf can't get on the Tour right away, but Mr. 200 gets an encore opportunity? That makes no sense.

Finchem said that college players -- or any non-PGA Tour members -- can, in fact, qualify for the three-tournament series if they win enough money to equal what Mr. 200 won. Let's see, the NCAA Championship is held in early June. Take out the major championships, the World Golf Championships and the FedEx Cup events that a non-member couldn't play in, and that leaves eight tournaments on the schedule. One of them is the AT&T National, hosted by Tiger Woods, which has a limited field, so you're probably not going to get in that one, either. Of the remaining seven, two are opposite-field events. That is, they're played opposite the British Open and the Bridgestone Invitational. Those events are the True South Classic and the Reno-Tahoe Open. They have $3 million purses, about half the total at stake in a regular tour event. So it'll be that much tougher to win enough in those smaller-purse events to crack the top 200. And that's in the unlikely event that Joe College Player could get his maximum of seven sponsors' exemptions, which he won't.

This whole thing isn't about a better way to qualify for the PGA Tour, as Finchem and friends are trying to persuade us. It's about creating a system that will generate more interest in hopes of luring a sponsor. But we don't know how it's going to work yet, so we don't know if it will generate more interest. The current Q-school system generates zero buzz with the public and the media, but at least it's open to everyone, not just PGA Tour apprentices.

The Tour also wants you to think that Nationwide players are much better than Q-school players and have a much better success rate once they reach the big time. The truth is, they're about the same. For four years from 2007 through 2010, 34 of 106 (32.1%) players who made it to the PGA Tour via Q-school retained their cards that year, while 31 of 100 players (31%) who reached the PGA Tour via the Nationwide retained their cards. Last year, it was just about 50-50 again.

The tour says Nationwide grads have done much better in the long term but doesn't issue explicit numbers to prove it. If a player goes to Q-school twice, gets on the Nationwide tour for three years and then makes the PGA Tour, is he a Q-school grad having long-term success or a Nationwide grad? There is no way to differentiate.

Older, more experienced players may have a better long-term success ratio, but there are plenty of success stories from both avenues.

But none of that matters. The PGA Tour has changed the game, and it was going to do it whether its players went along with it or not. The players may think they run their organization (well, maybe a few of them do), but the Tour's bureaucracy actually calls the shots.

And if the PGA Tour wants a closed shop, it'll have a closed shop. That's what the new Q-school rules will create. Equal opportunity and a fair fight are out the window.

So here's a helpful message for all of those who are going to be closed out by the new rules and have to serve a minimum of a one-year sentence on the Nationwide Tour: Play hard, boys.

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