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Biggest overhaul in PGA Tour history better be dead-on

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist

J.B. Holmes on Q-school: 'The way they set it up now, I wouldn't even have that chance' in '05. (Getty Images)  
J.B. Holmes on Q-school: 'The way they set it up now, I wouldn't even have that chance' in '05. (Getty Images)  

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The air conditioning in the press tent was off, the room was stifling, and there sat Tim Finchem, trying to remain cool and collected, nattily attired in a dark-blue business suit and tie, on an 85-degree Florida day.

The subject matter will surely make others hot under the collar, too.

Plowing dead ahead with the biggest overhaul in PGA Tour history, the commissioner unveiled the details of a sweeping new makeover that will not only change how players earn spots on the world's most lucrative tour, but change the timing chain of the entire season.

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Approved earlier Tuesday morning at a meeting of the tour's Policy Board, the blueprint for the structure has been approved, though the color of the drapes and carpet have yet to be decided.

"We have a lot of work to do," said Davis Love, a board member.

It's going to take a lot of spin to position this as an improvement, at least to the aficionados and traditionalists. Which make up, oh, about 99 percent of the game's most loyal fans.

"Any time you make a change, human nature is, 'Why are we changing.'" Finchem said. "You know, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. There's another way to look at things, that when things are going pretty well, that's the time to get better. That's the philosophy we have embraced."

Oh, we're way past the point of embrace. They're swapping spit by now, and rounding quickly toward second and third base.

Finchem, fresh from the board meeting at the nearby Ritz-Carlton, brought in several pages of notes, which is not often a good sign, since he can extemporaneously wing it with the best of them. He's a filibuster in wing tips. But this time, he was armed to the teeth with talking points for the spin offensive. He needed the armaments, because some major change is coming, some of it obliterating a half-century of tour culture.

Qualifying School, a well-traveled avenue to the tour since the 1960s, has been restructured, although neutered might be an equally effective term. Moreover, future seasons, beginning next fall, will abandon the calendar and morph into a wraparound schedule starting with 2013-14.

For those who thought the move to the FedEx Cup scheme six years ago was a major philosophical overhaul, this was a massive systemic redesign. And unlike with the FedEx Cup, which is an interesting side competition with points and bonus money contested within the tournament season, barring a splash of lipstick, the tour needs to get this fashion makeover right the first time around.

"We have to do all the things we did when we started the FedEx Cup, and maybe more," Finchem said.

On the drawing board for over a year and massaged to death at various points along the way, the tour membership has mostly just shrugged and accepted the fact that it was a fait accompli. Which was true. There's major money on the table, and part of the overhaul was made to attract a new title sponsor for the tour's developmental circuit, where Nationwide is exiting at the end of the season.

Folding the Nationwide and Q-school into a conjoined qualifying system each fall will have the biggest immediate effect. Those loveable longshots, the Q-school wannabes going for the biggest brass ring of all -- a card on the PGA Tour -- will face what amounts to a one-year apprenticeship on the Nationwide as a path to the major leagues.

Six years ago, the tour reconstructed the season so that the biggest events ended in September with the FedEx Cup finale, a construct made to avoid the dwindling television ratings when facing the NFL. In 2013-14, the six marginalized events in what is currently called the Fall Series will be folded into the FedEx points system, though the amount of points to be awarded has yet to be finalized. In effect, the season begins in October, two weeks after it ends.

"So, we're going to end the season in September, then basically start it again a week later?" said veteran J.B. Holmes. "We make all these changes so that the season ends before football starts, now we're back competing against football again?

"Dumbest thing I have ever heard. You can quote me on that."

Already did.

On several fronts, Holmes is the cleated personification of why the plan is going to be savaged in some quarters. In 2005, weeks removed from his senior year at Kentucky, Holmes blew through Q-school as its medalist, with a handful of other '05 collegian qualifiers behind him. Two months later, he won his first PGA Tour event in Phoenix.

"The way they set it up now, I wouldn't even have that chance," Holmes said.

Consider the incredible cast from Q-school finals 11 years ago in West Palm Beach, when Luke Donald, Boo Weekley and teenager Ty Tryon all made it through on their first try. Donald had just completed his career at Northwestern and has since become the world No. 1 twice over. Tryon became the first notable American player to skip college, not to mention part of high school, to earn a card. Weekley became a cult figure and a future Ryder Cup player.

For the past few years, 25 graduates from both Q-school and the Nationwide have earned cards on the PGA Tour the following season. Under the new scheme, players finishing between Nos. 125-200 in PGA Tour earnings and the top 75 from the Nationwide money list will engage in a three-event series, with the top 50 getting cards on the big tour. Q-school will still exist, but solely for those seeking Nationwide access.

The tour, using some occasionally fuzzy math, asserts that the card retention rate has been historically higher among those who made the big tour via the Nationwide, a terrific springboard, though the difference is negligible, really.

According to the Augusta Chronicle, of the 106 players who reached the PGA Tour via Q-school between 2007-10, 34 retained full status the next season (32.1 percent). Of the 100 Nationwide Tour grads in that same span, 31 retained their PGA Tour cards the next year (31.0 percent).

What it's really about is making the FedEx Cup a more valuable proposition. And by the way, with Tuesday's makeover in the promises pipeline, FedEx signed a major sponsor contract extension four weeks ago valued at $35 million a year. Making the developmental circuit more salable is nearly as crucial. No replacement sponsor for Nationwide has been secured, Finchem conceded.

"This ties the Nationwide Tour, in the minds of fans, to the PGA Tour brand,"' Finchem said.

Yeah, maybe. Cross-branding biz-speak aside, the devil is in the details -- and there's plenty left for the tour to knead before the next Policy Board meeting starts June 25. The tour has been eyeballing some manner of seeding for the three-week qualifying series as a means of rewarding players for strong seasons to that point.

But who faced a tougher year and deserved the largest pre-approved credit line? The guy who finished first in Nationwide earnings, or the dude who was 126th on the PGA Tour, playing against the varsity. The tour has to get the balance right. There are careers at stake.

"The challenge is trying to relate performance on two different tours," tour vice-president Andy Pazder said. "This affects jobs, not retirement benefits or bonus pools."

The corollary issues are considerable. College players who turn pro no longer will have direct access to Q-school. They will need to play on sponsor exemptions and earn enough cash to crack the top 200 on the PGA Tour in order to crack the three-tournament qualifying series. If they make it, they face a season of seasoning, if you will, on the Nationwide.

The romance of Rickie Fowler-types aside, Finchem said that according to their own numbers, on average over the past decade, 1.4 players fresh out of college have earned cards via Q-school.

"Certainly, there is an avenue [to the PGA Tour] there," Finchem said of the top collegians. "It's just a different kind of avenue."

Sure, the romantic allure of a complete Cinderella figure navigating his way through Q-school was mostly for hardcore devotees, and won't be much missed by mainstream fans. The biggest adjustment might be coming to grips with a season that starts two weeks after another one ends. Or caring that it does. The tour is set to begin the new season in mid-October, then take a six-week holiday break before resuming in January in Hawaii.

Most players have flatly deferred to his judgment. Finchem hasn't made many missteps over his tenure, and the plan has several undeniable positives. Including the possibility of delivering even more money to their wallets, of course.

"I think bringing the season to a conclusion and then setting, reloading quickly, and going out with players just having earned their card is a great way to do it," Finchem said. "Because we just turned the corner, we got the fans' interest, we finished the season, Player of the Year is named, we are off and running two weeks later. We have a bunch of rookies in the hunt and down the road we go.

"The flow of it is going to help us, but we have got a lot of work to do. I think it's going to be fun. I think it's going to be interesting and exciting to do."


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