PGA Tour proposes killing Q-school, big changes to developmental tour

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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Ty Tryon, then 17 in 2001, passes Q-school by placing T23. In 2011, he placed 158th at Q-school. (Getty Images)  
Ty Tryon, then 17 in 2001, passes Q-school by placing T23. In 2011, he placed 158th at Q-school. (Getty Images)  

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Maybe golf's ultimate wannabe heavyweight, that ubiquitous and annoying social climber named Trump, can co-opt the rights, since selling the product is at the core of this proposal and he's got deep pockets.

After all, the way things are headed, those hoping to claw their way into the PGA Tour starting next year first must serve a full season as an "apprentice" on the tour's developmental circuit.

Plowing forward with its controversial plan to eliminate Qualifying School by merging it with the second-tier Nationwide Tour to create a three-tournament run for the roses with 50 cards on offer, players were given their first formal rundown of the far-reaching new plan in a mandatory meeting at Torrey Pines on Tuesday night.

Deep breaths, everybody. This is Inside Baseball defined, but it represents the most comprehensive change in tour policy since the FedEx Cup series was adopted six years ago, and we all know how critically mixed the reviews of that series have been.

Over the years, the PGA Tour has been consistently scaling back the number of membership cards available to entries at Q-school and handed them off to Nationwide alums instead, but going the mothball route has raised questions, eyebrows and blood pressure in fast succession. Is a BBQ of Q-school, a complete detonation, really for the betterment of the product, or the means of providing a fast financial fix?

Go ahead and pick a side, but it's a little of both, actually.

The current proposal, which has been tweaked and twisted several times since it was first run up the flagpole for discussion last March, has its saleable and defensible positives, no question. But for a sport long hailed as one of the most democratic in all sports, Q-school, which dates to 1965 and used to be contested twice annually as the main boulevard to the tour ranks, is about to be sold down the river in an attempt to prop up the value of the satellite Nationwide, a tour property that needs a new title sponsor after the insurance company's contract expires later this year.

"No doubt, it is a divisive issue," a tour official said.

Extinction beckons for those wonderful annual stories about dreamy Q-school guys bucking long odds to gain access to golf's major leagues. Instead of grabbing the brass ring by cruising through as many as four Q-school stages, players will be granted access to the PGA Tour solely through the Nationwide, or whatever it's called in the new, wraparound 2013-14 season.

"To tell you the truth, I'm 50-50 on it," said tour veteran Charley Hoffman, a member of the tour's Player Advisory Council. "I see both sides of it. I live by, if it's not broken, don't fix it. 

"I think we're producing great players through the qualifying school. But is there a better system that you can come up with? Maybe, unless you try, you really don't know."

We're about to find out. Cosmetic surgery, it isn't.

Technically, the tour says it is blowing up Q-school after this fall for two primary reasons: Money-list data convincingly demonstrates that the 25 players promoted after a full season of Nationwide play have a higher card-retention rate than have the 25 or so alums from Q-school. The second, one not broadly cited in the spin control to date, is the tour badly needs a new umbrella sponsor.

So it's so long, Cinderellas, and hasta la vista to the foreign players, who are not likely going to waste a season of seasoning, pardon the pun, playing in the American minors. It could take a while before the ramifications are fully grasped.

But rest assured, the Q-school triumphs of guys like Boo Weekley, Ty Tryon and Tommy Gainey, interesting characters who first gained footholds as hardscrabble or unheralded players from well beyond the radar, are gone, and that's a tremendous pity. Then again, it's also worth noting that each of those celebrated three lost his card and was bounced back to the Nationwide for more experience. The general thinking is that running the table in Q-school, staged over two months, is easier than playing well for an entire year on the Nationwide.

"I've always thought that Q-school should have about five spots, so the guys out of college, guys on the mini tours, have a chance to get straight to the tour," said Bubba Watson, who earned his card off the Nationwide, where he spent three seasons. "I thought the Nationwide, or whatever sponsor it is, I think that they should have all the spots.

"I think you should be a proving ground. It's kind of like baseball. You start at the minor leagues and work your way up. Obviously, you play good, you'll get here pretty quick."

Ah, but that type of talk makes traditionalists wince. True, few MLB draft picks make the jump straight to the majors from high school or the NCAA ranks. But several top college golfers have done just that. Consider the ranks of prominent American players who have gained PGA Tour access via Q-school since 2005, when newly minted pro J.B. Holmes was the medalist and won a few weeks later in his PGA Tour debut. In 2008, Webb Simpson, fresh out of Wake Forest, earned his card at Q-school, just as Rickie Fowler did a year later and Dustin Johnson had done in 2007. All three were a few weeks removed from their last amateur event. College players of a similar ilk going forward face a year on the Nationwide.

The same year Holmes was medalist straight off the University of Kentucky campus, Nick Watney, Hunter Mahan, Robert Garrigus, Bill Haas and D.A. Points -- all proven tour winners or members of U.S. international cup teams -- made it through Q-school. In 2007, Y.E. Yang, a veteran of the Asian tours, plunked down the $4,500 application fee, took a shot and earned his card at Q-school.

All he did was become the first Asian player to win a major. Spending a year on the Nationwide might have kept him at home, and in an era of growing international impact, that's awfully exclusionary.

Hey, the tour brass knows the plan isn't perfect. Q-school underdogs make great sales-and-marketing hooks, since everybody loves stories about the proverbial one-legged punter. Square pegs, meet round holes. But the tour is a business, and the developmental circuit needs to be relevant and sexier, which it mostly isn't.

As part of the pitch to attract a replacement for Nationwide, the new plan is for the PGA Tour to run a wraparound season, a La the NBA and NHL, starting after the FedEx Cup series ends in mid-September. The new qualifying series will be contested in the same time frame, at different venues, with tour cards at stake.

As it stands, the three-event qualifying series will be include players finishing No. 126-200 on the PGA Tour money list, with Greensboro's Wyndham Championship serving as the last chance to crack the top 125, cement a card and gain entrance to the FedEx sessions. Those who missed will be joined by the top 75 from the Nationwide money list for a seeded, three-stop stretch in which the top 50 will earn promotions the following season ... which will start a matter of days later.

The three-tourney series will be weighted and college players will have a crack at earning one of the big-league cards, too. In the proposed seeding, the player finishing No. 126 in PGA Tour earnings will start the new qualifying sweepstakes with the same adjusted dollar figure as the player who topped the Nationwide money list in the regular season. Likewise, No. 127 in PGA Tour earnings will begin the series with the same money as No. 2 in Nationwide earnings, and so forth down the line. The 50 players with the most combined regular-season and series money will earn a card. Landing a top seeding or winning one of the three events essentially ensures a promotion to the PGA Tour.

Given the closed process, the tour concocted a unique way to give college hotshots like Simpson, Fowler and Holmes a chance to make it to the majors right straight from the NCAA ranks. Under the proposal, which will be presented to the tour's Policy Board in March for final approval, an amateur player's faux "earnings" while playing in PGA or Nationwide events will be tracked. If the amateur player has amassed as much in virtual earnings as the player finishing 200th on the PGA Tour or 75th or better on the Nationwide money list, he gets to play in the three-tournament sprint.

The amateur's virtual earnings would be garnered by playing on sponsor exemptions or by going through pre-tournament open qualifying process. The 200th player in PGA Tour earnings last year pocketed a few bucks under $170,000. For context, top amateur Patrick Cantlay, now a sophomore at UCLA, made about $345,000 in his five PGA Tour-sanctioned events last year and would have been invited to the series and earned a decent seeding.

The tour buzzword for the plan is "synchronization," which isn't quite the same as "optimization." Yet in a few respects, if the proposal flies as currently designed, it could better the product on the PGA Tour and greatly simplify the convoluted calendar as it currently exists.

When the FedEx Cup series launched six years ago, several tournaments were moved to the back end of the calendar and dubbed Fall Series events. They were, in fact, marginalized, and played with smaller purses and weaker fields since most of the big boys packed up their clubs after the fourth FedEx stop in Atlanta. With the makeover, Atlanta will represent the official season finale and the season in 2013 would start with the Frys.com Open outside San Jose, Calif.

Two existing semi-official events in Malaysia and China, which don't count as official PGA Tour money, would become fully vested events. The tour would take a break of six to eight weeks at the end of the year, then pick up in early January with the Tournament of Champions, which no longer would serve as a season opener.

Interestingly, after falling well behind the European Tour with regard to finding a tournament foothold in the growing markets of Asia, the U.S. tour would be somewhat mirroring the E-Tour's wraparound calendar going forward and adding two Asian events as fully carbonated fall options. Unlike now, the fall and Asia events would offer full FedEx points, official money and a confusing era of quasi-official PGA Tour events would, mercifully, end.

Those seeking to begin their climb up the professional food chain by playing the Nationwide would play in a completely neutered version of Q-school offering access only to the developmental circuit. Yawn.

On a PGA Tour mostly populated by players who earned cards via the two existing qualifying routes, this could ultimately play out like the FedEx Cup points system, which has been tucked and tweaked so often, it's the Joan Rivers of sports.

"We're trying to get it right," Hoffman said Tuesday. "The first time, if it goes through, who knows if it's going to be right? It may go back, it may not.

"To tell you the truth, I see both sides of the story. I understand both sides, and I don't think there can be a wrong decision. If they keep it the same, it will be great. If they change it, it will be great."

As to the utterly unproven latter, it's only assured to be different -- and perhaps much less compelling without the Gaineys, Weekleys and Tryons.

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