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PGA Tour finalizes controversial makeover as Qualifying School gone after six-decade run

By Steve Elling | Senior Golf Columnist
The PGA Tour announced changes to how it awards PGA Tour cards on Tuesday. (Getty Images)

Oh, the dastardly dichotomy.

As the biggest names on the PGA Tour are playing in a series of events for $35 million in FedEx Cup lucre, an entirely different tournament series will be simultaneously staged to sort out the wannabes who get to play in the game's big leagues the following season.

Call it a Survivor Series, but on Tuesday, the tour finally nailed down some of the not-so-niggling details of a vague plan they first announced four months ago – the complete detonation of Qualifying School and a merger with the developmental tour formerly known as the Nationwide.

The difference is, as some are playing merely to add more folding money for their bulging wallets, others will have their futures on the line come September in a three-tournament run called the Web.com Tour Finals. Quite the catchy title, huh?

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Sorry for the devil's advocacy act, but like many in golf, we skew toward the conservative view around here.

"I think the biggest problem with the new program is that people don't necessarily like change," said veteran Paul Goydos, a member of the tour's Policy Board.

Guilty as charged.

Sadly, instead of having players earn membership via Q-school and the newly re-titled Web.com Tour, PGA Tour officials combined the two entities into what can rightly be called an Apprenticeship Circuit. That is, the vast majority of players will be forced to play on the Web.com for at least one season as a means of getting to the parent tour.

While some of the broad elements of the plan have merit, it's hard to give the Q-school rewrite anything but, pardon the pun, a qualified endorsement.

Mostly because it has now, officially, come to pass: Sayonara, Cinderella. The dance is closed.

Highly talented players such as Rickie Fowler, J.B. Holmes or Dustin Johnson, who stepped straight off the college campus, blew through Q-school to secure cards, earn Ryder Cup berths and never looked back, will now be forced to endure a season in the developmental minors as a mean of making the majors.

It's a complete bedrock change of Richter Scale magnitude, arguably the biggest systemic overhaul in tour history, and for what? To make the developmental tour more compelling and thus attract a title sponsor, right? Pretty much.

"The real negative for most people is the loss of the romance of Q-school," Goydos said, "which was weighed against the financial viability of the Triple-A of golf."

Whether that was ultimately a big selling point to the incoming sponsor, well, you make the call.

“Certainly, we think it's [the makeover] very beneficial, but that decision had already been made by the tour when we engaged,” said Web.com CEO David Brown two weeks ago, when his company signed on to replace outgoing Nationwide as sponsor. “So it was nice to have but not a fundamental part of our decision-making process.”

Wow, that's a lotta dynamite expended.

Pretty obviously, this overhaul is going to impact the pipeline of players to the PGA Tour, the elite NCAA ranks, the stream of international players seeking to play in the States, while obliterating the romanticism of longhots with scratch handicaps, a dream and $5,000 in Q-school money who dared to chase rainbows.

You know, like this guy, this guy or this guy. Or the aforementioned college stars.

"Did we want to risk the future financial stability of the developmental tour for that one [Cinderella or college] guy?" Goydos said. "It's not like the economy is booming. We were struggling to find an umbrella sponsor for that tour."

Whether this sweeping redesign results in a quantifiable improvement on the Q-school notion, a bootstraps meritocracy that has which has been around for parts of six decades, is open to heaping helpings of sarcasm and speculation. But what the heck, the tour inked Web.com and solvency trumps all.

It's going to be very interesting, five years down the line, to note the card-retention rate of guys who earn spots on the PGA Tour using this cockamamie new combo system. Because the other espoused notion for nuking the old plan – Q-school has been around since the 1960s and used to be staged twice a year -- is founded on the specious notion that a year on the developmental circuit better sorts the wheat from the chaff than does a six-week run through Q-school.

Maybe, maybe not. Mostly, these are all the same players, anyway, guys seeking berths in the big leagues. Perhaps a third of the players on the PGA Tour have been through both the Nationwide and Q-school wringers, so definitively separating them by pedigree is close to impossible.

This makeover better work, and quick, or we'll be the first in line to trumpet the database disaster. Retention rates and recidivism of Nationwide players versus Q-school alums? Sounds like prison parlance, huh? Hey, if a season playing the Web.com sounds like an involuntary one-year stretch behind bars to some, we won't fight the analogy.

It's easy to be suspicious when the tour tweaks anything, as commas and decimal points are being printed on corporate checks. As always, the more commas in the number, the more the tour is willing to twist and torque. Not that the hardcore constituency in the sport is filled with traditionalists or anything, eh?

After several options regarding the rebooted qualifying system last month were kicked back down to the player level for commentary, feedback and criticism, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem finally laid out the details: As before, a total of 50 PGA Tour cards will be available every year, with 25 again guaranteed to the top finishers on the Web.com (nee Nationwide) Tour money list.

A seeding plan had been considered entering the three-event series, but the tour elected to guarantee spots to those in the Web.com top 25 – matching the number that currently “graduate” annually to the tour the following year and rewarding players for solid performances over the longer haul.

However, every player finishing between Nos. 1-75 in Web.com earnings and between Nos. 126-200 on the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup points list will play in the new three-event series, which will during a similar time window as the lucrative FedEx cash grab, which pays $10 million to the winner.

With the top 25 in Web.com earnings assured cards, the rest will play for the remaining 25. Also, the three-tournament series, expected to include $1 million purses, will determine the priority pecking order of the 50 cards distributed. The better the finish, the higher seeded the players will be when trying to gain entry to tournaments the following season.

The plan takes effect roughly 14 months from now, with the last iteration of Q-School as it has been conducted for decades set for later this fall. The 2012 Q-school grads will, in effect, have eight months to retain their cards next season by finishing in the top 125 in FedEx points.

After completing this three-event Web.com Finals run, many of the successful 50 players would start the new, wraparound PGA Tour season … about two weeks later. The events formerly relegated to the current Fall Series have been anointed as fully carbonated events starting in the fall of 2013. Future PGA Tour seasons will begin around mid-October.

Yeah, it's dizzying. The most consistent criticism is that the PGA Tour is evolving into more of a closed shop with crimped access points.

"I see that point and it's probably a reasonably valid point," Goydos said. "Do I understand the argument? Yes."

While most have rightly applauded the inclusion of the current Fall Series events as full-fledged PGA Tour events offering FedEx Cup points into the 2013 fold, the hand-wringing has centered on several of the key points sure to create a ripple effect.

Top college players face a much tougher road to instant membership. In fact, player agents predict that top collegians will leave school earlier, in order to accept the seven permitted sponsor exemptions as a means of hopefully avoiding the Web.com tour altogether. University of Alabama product Bud Cauley earned enough money in his seven sponsor exemptions last year to claim a ‘12 card and skip Q-school. But with the wraparound season starting next year, there won't be nearly as many summer events for collegians to chase that brass ring. Players might bail at the semester break, or blow off college altogether.

Far-fetched? Said one top player agent Tuesday: “No, that's an absolute fact.”

Stanford sophomore Patrick Rodgers, playing this week at the John Deere Classic on a sponsor exemption, has his antenna up for sure.

"It certainly is weighing a lot on every top college players' mind," he said Tuesday. "I mean, it's a big change for the tour."

By requiring a veritable one-year internship program on the Web.com Tour, the number of elite players trying to earn a PGA Tour card via the old Q-school route – as promising Asian stars Sang Moon Bae and Seung Yul Noh did last December – will surely disappear. No player of that ilk is going to serve a season in the American minors, not with all the money available overseas.

"I think it's a risk," Goydos said. "I definitely think a mid-level international player is going to have a much harder time getting on this tour now."

Moreover, the tournaments staged globally in what used to be considered the off-season potentially are going to get whalloped. Events in Australia, struggling to keep a sponsorship foothold in November, now face the greater possibility of running opposite a PGA Tour event and never seeing homegrown stars.


Using FedEx Cup points, and not the money list to establish the top 125 cardholders, seems patently absurd and a blatant capitulation to the corporate sponsor. For eons, the money list was the final arbiter of success and failure in terms of keeping cards, as was the player's scorecard itself. Money determines the U.S. Ryder Cup roster. Now we can all stand back and wait until some poor slug finishes 124th in earnings, but 126th in FedEx Cup points – and enjoy the bombast and bomb blasts as he loses his card.

Yeah, some of this blowback is plenty snarky. It's our job, of course, to bust out the pitfalls, possibilities and parallels here, but consider this as the totality of this makeover begins to take root and the aftershocks set in.

This thing was designed and implemented by the same crew that brought you the FedEx Cup points system, which the commissioner has compared in mostly positive terms to college football's oft-panned BCS system.

The FedEx points have been so consistently incoherent, the player who won the $10 million last year didn't realize he'd won the bonus.

Until he was accepting the winner's trophy.

 
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