Proposed Q-school changes would delay young stars’ debuts on PGA Tour

December 20, 2011

The PGA Tour should not be a closed shop. The best players in the world should have a chance to play their way onto the Tour, no matter where they’re from or where they played last.
That, in a nutshell, is why the proposed changes to the Tour’s qualifying system are a bad idea.
Currently, the top 25 money winners from the Nationwide tour and the top 25 players and ties from Q-school’s six-round tournament earn exempt status on the PGA Tour. In the new system, according to the Associated Press, the top 75 money-winners from the Nationwide tour would compete with the 75 players who finished 126th-200th on the PGA Tour money list in a three-tournament series for 50 spots, possibly with some kind of points system weighted toward the Nationwide’s top 25.  The new system would begin in 2013.

Related: Why Q-school changes would be great for PGA Tour — and the event
The players who don’t get one of the 50 spots would presumably head for the new Q-school, where they and the rest of the field would only be playing for status on the Nationwide Tour.
Here are the issues I have with the proposed plan:
Amateur Hour: This new system would be bad for players and fans because it would potentially delay talented young stars from competing on the PGA Tour. Here are two high-profile examples.
If this system were in place when Tiger Woods started his pro career in 1996, Woods would likely have been relegated to an entire season of Nationwide events in place like Broussard, La.; Valdosta, Ga.; Santiago, Chile; and Newburgh, Ind.
Why? Because Woods would likely not have had time to play his way onto the PGA Tour, and Q-school would only have earned him a spot on the second-tier Nationwide tour.
In 1996, Woods competed in eight tournaments as a pro before the year ended, including qualifying for the limited-field Tour Championship after he broke through and won his first pro event in Las Vegas. Now, Woods would only be able to play in four fall events on sponsors’ exemptions because he wouldn’t be eligible for the FedEx Cup playoffs. His breakthrough victory was his fifth tournament as a pro, which would have been one tournament too late under the new system.
Golf’s biggest draw would have been sent to the minor leagues instead of winning the Masters in record-setting fashion the following April.
Rickie Fowler waited to turn pro until September of 2009, after he played in the Walker Cup. He played on sponsors’ exemptions but came up short of earning his card, so he went to Q-school and qualified. Under the proposed changes, his Q-school success would only have earned him a Nationwide season, and he would have missed the 2010 Ryder Cup.
According to the Associated Press, college stars like Fowler and other amateurs might still have a path to the big leagues under the new system. One possible solution would give amateurs credit for the money they would have earned while playing PGA Tour events on sponsors’ exemptions. If their total “earnings” on Tour got them into the top 200 on the PGA Tour money list, they would be eligible for the three-tournament series with the bottom-tier PGA Tour players and top Nationwide players. (Fowler would have made it into the three-tournament series with his actual winnings in 2009, when he finished second at the Open after a playoff and won a total of $571,090.)
But why make it so hard for top amateurs and collegiate players to compete on the PGA Tour right away? When amateur golf produces players with some marquee name recognition, like Peter Uihlein of Oklahoma State or Patrick Cantlay, the UCLA sophomore who had a sensational summer, why relegate them to a year in the minor leagues?
Sure, they could theoretically still play their way onto the Tour, but with a limit of seven sponsors’ exemptions and a Monday qualifying system that requires non-members to compete in a pre-qualifier a few days earlier, Q-school is the only realistic path to the Tour for the vast majority of players.
At least, it is now.
The Deadwood Factor. What did the guy who finished 200th on the PGA Tour money list or 75th on the Nationwide list do that was so dazzling that he gets another chance at a PGA Tour card while the best amateur or collegiate players in the country don’t?
This proposed system appears designed to enable the PGA Tour journeymen to hang on to their perks while keeping talented young players at bay. If you finished 200th on the money list after an entire season, maybe you should be designated for assignment on the Nationwide the next year without the chance of a reprieve. You had your chance, Mr. 200. Make way for someone else.
The Q-School Myth. There’s also a general feeling that Nationwide grads fare better than Q-school grads. Well, not in 2011. Nine of 25 Nationwiders finished among the top 125 on the PGA Tour money list and kept their cards. Nine of 29 Q-schoolers finished among the top 125. (Justin Hicks, who finished 179th and didn’t keep his card, was counted in both categories, by the way—he finished 25th on the Nationwide money list, then went to Q-school to try to improve his ranking.)
The percentage is close to the same, so let’s keep score another way: Q-school 9, Nationwide 9. The guys from Q-school aren’t as good? Tell that to Gary Woodland, who won the Transitions Championship and World Cup and finished 15th on the money list, or Scott Stallings, who won at Greenbrier. (Nationwide grads were led by Keegan Bradley, whose two victories included the PGA Championship, and winners Brendan Steele and Jhonattan Vegas.)
The proposed system would’ve delayed Woodland’s blossoming into one of America’s most promising young stars.
The Money Search. Ever since the FedEx Cup was born, the PGA Tour seemed to lose interest in its fall tournaments. Once there were eight. Now there are four, and they’re smaller and less lucrative than the regular-season tournaments.

Despite comments from some corners that the PGA Tour season was too long, you won’t find many rank-and-file players who agree. They’re seeing their playing opportunities shrink along with the Tour and its growing penchant for limited-field events. This repackaged three-event series sounds like it might be compelling on the surface—guys playing for spots on the Tour.
But it won’t be compelling for the same reason that Q-school telecasts aren’t compelling: the public hasn’t heard of most of these guys. In a time where even some golf media members only pay attention to tournaments that include Tiger Woods and/or Phil Mickelson, this series is guaranteed to have no one in the top 125 and a bunch of off-the-radar names from the Nationwide tour.
Who’s really going to watch that show besides the friends and relatives of the players, and what sponsor wants to pay big bucks for such a small bang?
Of course, this repackaging may be attractive to the Tour because Nationwide Insurance is dropping its sponsorship, and the PGA Tour needs a way to make its minor league more attractive to potential sponsors. The changes would serve that purpose, but at what cost to the success of the big Tour?

Maybe it’s just a marketing push to make the Nationwide telecasts on Golf Channel more compelling and relevant. Maybe the rank-and-file PGA Tour players are simply afraid of good young players taking their places on the perk-heavy, endorsement-rich gravy train that is the PGA Tour.
Whatever the reason, these changes would make the PGA Tour more of a closed shop and less of a meritocracy. That doesn’t seem like a good idea for golf, a game that already has a long history of exclusion.