At the Players Championship, everyone in the field has earned their spot

Tiger Woods
Matt Slocum / AP
Tiger Woods, who will make his first start since his controversial T4 at the Masters, has not had much success at Sawgrass in the last decade.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- One thing I like about this week's Players is that there are no free passes. You're in based on the numbers, not because you happen to live in the area or because your dad is the assistant tournament director.

It's good, old-fashioned Smith-Barney stuff. You've got to earn a spot in this field. Like the new No. 1 in this year's Whosis Rankings, Derek Ernst. He snuck into the Wells Fargo Championship as an alternate, via the last Q-school ever, and won in a playoff with David Lynn, who has dropped out of the Whosis Rankings Top 10 because of too many good finishes.

Ernst is living proof that the PGA Tour dropped the ball, screwed the pooch and butt-fumbled in its own end zone with its new Qualifying Tournament (or Q-school) System. Tour propagandists last year tried to convince us the former Nationwide Tour turned out more PGA Tour-ready players than Q-school but that simply wasn't true. There are as many Q-school success stories as Nationwide-turned-Web.com success stories.

The only way a Cinderella fella of Ernst's ilk is likely going to win a PGA Tour event again is by Monday qualifying. Q-school is now held to determine who gets to play on the Web.com Tour, while a couple of Web.com events were bundled into a new and supposedly TV-friendly tournament series that will determine which leftovers earn tour privileges for the following season. The PGA Tour is a closed shop as of next year.

Sure, the next can't-miss college player can try to play his way onto the big tour with the seven sponsor's exemptions a non-member is allowed. Jordan Spieth is proving that's possible, but few collegians will ever be afforded their limit of seven exemptions unless they're already marquee names.

The simple compromise solution is to throw a bone to the new-and-downgraded Q-school by giving a PGA Tour card to the winner, or maybe the top three finishers -- anything to keep it from being a closed shop. This new system likely would've detoured Rickie Fowler to the Nationwide Tour for a season, which would've kept him off his first Ryder Cup team. The PGA Tour should be open to getting new talent out there on tour, not making it serve what amounts to indentured servitude as apprentices, no matter how valuable those apprentice experiences may be.

It's not too late to prevent the blockade that is the new Q-school. A minor fix -- even just one tour card for the Q-school champion -- would keep open the pipeline from amateur golf to the big leagues. Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

The short game
I'll put one hand on the coveted ITSO Cup (stands for I Told You So) when the USGA announced that Tiger Woods did, indeed, take an incorrect drop and sign for an incorrect score and therefore should've been disqualified from the Masters, and that Fred Ridley and his Masters rules buddies improperly applied Rule 33-7. Since Ridley & Co. never talked with Tiger before he turned in his card, it was an open-and-shut case, exactly as I said. And the media hacks who tried to suck up to Tiger by saying Tiger's two-shot penalty (instead of a DQ) was justice were wrong. The question that went unanswered was, "Fred, how did you watch the video and NOT see a violation?" USGA types will tell you the only correct drop on a replayed shot is to drop it practically on top of your previous divot. That was so clearly not the case…

The other hand grabbed the coveted ITSO Cup when the PGA Tour decreed that Vijay Singh would not be penalized for using deer antler spray and that it had been dropped from the banned list. Deer antler spray has no apparent performance-enhancing benefits or lawyer-repellant properties. Thus, Vijay was always going to walk on this one. The you-know-what will hit the fan when Olympic drug-testing comes to golf, which will be exactly when, since the Olympics are a scant three years away?...

I'm pretty sure Phil Mickelson's near-miss at the Wells Fargo Championship bumps him into the top five on the PGA Tour's all-time career Coulda-Shoulda-Woulda Victory List. I've got Lefty down for a dozen Coulda-Shoulda-Woulda major titles alone. He's got to be near 70 C-S-W wins for his career. I'm not sure which was worse, messing up the easy birdie at the par-5 15th or missing the par-3 17th green with a short iron and three-putting. He's not the first player to get hammered by Quail Hollow's finishing holes, just the latest…

If you check out the Stadium Village during this week's Players at TPC Sawgrass, you can find a miniature Players trophy made of chocolate and buy it. It's produced by Peterbrooke Chocolatier, I'm told, and it looks too good too eat. Sounds like a marketing blunder. Peterbrooke should be selling miniature chocolate busts of Tim Finchem so players and media could bite the head that feeds them…

Moving on to this week's Van Cynical Mailbag:

Van Cynical, I've heard the PGA Tour pension plan, based on cuts made, is sweeter than any California State employee's. Do tell! -- Michael O'Connor via Twitter

The Tour's plan is sweeter because it will likely be able to pay out those ridiculous pensions, unlike California, which many experts figure can't possibly avoid bankruptcy. The tour's plan is complicated but, in basic terms, if you're on tour five years and made 15 total cuts, you'll get $3,800 for the first 15 cuts you made in a season and $7,500 for each one after that. Scott Hoch made 498 cuts in his career. You can do the math. The tour's pension plan had $655 million in assets after 2010. In other words, almost as much as Tiger's net worth.

Why does Tiger struggle at Sawgrass -- only one top-10 since his 2001 victory by my count? -- Rick Fisher via Twitter

Timing. Tiger is all about the four majors and playing for history. In early May, Tiger is vacationing after his Masters grind. He hasn't begun to gear up in earnest for the U.S. Open, so his game isn't sharp. Van Cynical, are you saying Tiger doesn't give a rip about the Players? I did not say that. Maybe I thought it. Also, big-hitters pretty much holster their drivers at the Stadium Course. Two par-5s are difficult for anyone to reach in two and two par-5s are reachable for just about everyone, negating length as an advantage. The penal course design often negates recovery shots, an area Tiger normally excels in, and the many water hazards can turn one errant shot that might be salvageable at another course into a double- or triple-bogey here. Basically, it's a tightrope-walking contest followed by a putting contest. Flip a coin.

Gary, When someone sets a course record, is the previous record-holder informed? -- John Wills via Twitter

Now that's an original question, J.W. No, ex-record-holders aren't informed. It's usually not that big of a deal. Course records are a somewhat informal business. Many courses, even some private clubs, don't pay much attention. Other clubs find excuse to refuse to recognize any low rounds posted -- perhaps one or two tee markers were slightly forward on a given day. I'd wager that at a majority of public courses, nobody working the counter could even tell you what the course record is or who shot it.

What courses would PGA pros love to play on tour that aren't currently played and which courses would they be happy to never see again? -- Kristopher Barrie via Twitter

I think the pros will go ga-ga (not you, Lady) over Merion, an old-school design. They typically enjoy older courses. Oak Hills in San Antonio was always a popular stop when it hosted the Texas Open. Fort Worth's Colonial is another throwback. Pick out any track in the top 25 of the course rankings and players would probably prefer it. Augusta National is very, very popular. Among the least-popular are the more modern, sometimes awkward tracks. The TPC Four Seasons Resort in Arlington, site of the Byron Nelson event, has never been beloved. The Ritz-Carlton course at Dove Mountain, home of the Accenture Match Play, is near the bottom of the list, as is the TPC San Antonio, home of the Valero Texas Open.

Will Merion give up the most birdies in U.S. Open history? How about the most double bogeys? -- Mike Ryan via Twitter

No and no. Merion is no pushover despite its apparent short length. I played there last week and wrote about it for Golf.com. It's a nice mix of some birdie holes and some brutes. The birdie record might be in play if it rains and the greens are soft. Give these guys receptive greens, they'll tear up any course. While there are several out of bounds areas in play, the double-bogey record is way out of reach without many significant water hazards on the course. Too bad. I'd pay to see that record broken. That's great Open spectating fodder.

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