HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — I'm already on the record as hating pretty much everything about the PGA Tour's new qualifying system.
That said, you can't stop progress. If they're going to pave over paradise and put up a parking lot, we've got to figure out a way to make the best of it.
Before I offer my suggestions, here's a quick recap of how the new system is going to work: The traditional four stages of Q-school will still be held, but the survivors will only earn a spot on the Nationwide Tour. The top 75 money winners on the Nationwide Tour will join the players ranked 126th through 200th on the PGA Tour money list to play a three-tournament series, with the top 50 finishers getting their PGA Tour cards for the following season. The Tour hasn't announced all the details of how these tournaments will work, but there has been talk of some kind of weighted system that would give the top 25 Nationwide finishers a considerable advantage. (Under the current system, the top 25 on the Nationwide get PGA Tour cards.) If that sounds like a potential super-sized can of worms, well, it is.
So here's my better idea:
Open Season. My biggest criticism of the new plan is that it makes the PGA Tour a closed shop. John Huh, who won the Mayakoba Classic in February, earned his spot on the Tour this year by playing his way through Q-school. Under the new system, he'd be playing in the minor leagues. Anyone and everyone should have a chance to get on the Tour, even if it's an against-all-odds chance. So, I'd award PGA Tour cards to the top-five finishers from the traditional, four-stage Q-school. The rest of the qualifiers would only get Nationwide berths, but the five best would still earn a trip to the big show. That eliminates all the closed-shop criticisms. It would also require the Tour to reduce to 45 the number of spots available from the three-tournament playoff featuring the best of the Nationwide and the worst of the PGA Tour. A small price to pay for fairness.
Nationwide champs. The backers of the new system say that playing a whole season on the Nationwide tour is a better way to select players for the PGA Tour. If that's true, why do the guys who play the best on the Nationwide all year still have to take their chances in a three-tournament sprint series at the end of the year? How about at least rewarding those players who have had a great season? Give the top 10 players on the Nationwide money list their PGA Tour cards for the next season. They would be in, end of story. That leaves 35 spots to play for during the new three-tournament series.
Standing start. I don't see any fair way to handicap the three-event series. How do you measure a guy who finished 126th on the PGA Tour against a player who was second on the Nationwide Tour? Which is a more difficult feat? Who faced tougher competition? (And never mind my usual complaint: What did the guy at No. 200 do to deserve another chance to stay on the Tour?) There is no solution that is going to be equitable or without controversy, so don't even try.
The only way to hold this three-event playoff is for all the players to start from scratch. What you've done all year no longer matters. Nobody gets an edge. That would make those 10 spots from the Nationwide money list that much more valuable. Everyone else has just three tournaments to earn one of the 35 available spots.
My system solves the most serious of the complaints about the new system. You can still play your way from Podunkville to the PGA Tour (like Rickie Fowler and many others); the top 10 Nationwide players still get a reward; and everyone else would take part in a fair fight.
The one remaining issue would be how to rank all the qualifiers for purposes of tournament entry on the PGA Tour the next season. I'd alternate the top five from Q-School with the top 10 from the Nationwide, then put the winners of the new three-tournament series behind them. It only matters for the first eight weeks of the season anyway, after which the players are re-ranked by their place on the money list.
In my system, at least it's still possible for aspiring pros to play their way onto the PGA Tour without making a stop in the minors. Let the players play. It's what they do best.