The PGA Tour hasn’t fully articulated the reasons why, but they are about to snuff out the dreams of a lot of prospective players. They are about to make the PGA Tour a “closed shop;” the kid you know who is a lock for the Tour will no longer have the chance to get there directly.
They don’t have the details worked out yet, but what they are trying to do is eliminate Q-School as we know it in favor of a three-tournament series. The only problem for the dreamers and the college kids is that they can’t play in it. The only players eligible to play in it are the PGA Tour players who failed to keep their cards by finishing 126 to 200 on the money list (75 players) and the top 75 players on the Nationwide Tour money list (so apparently no more top 25 promotions for a good year on the Nationwide either). Those 150 players would be playing for 50 PGA Tour cards over those three tournaments.
Those 100 players who failed to get through would be joined by the dreamers and college kids at a traditional Q-School, traditional except that they would only be playing for Nationwide Tour cards.
That’s a real good deal for players who already proved that maybe they’re not ready to play on the PGA Tour. They had a year to do so and weren’t able to get the job done. A lot of that is attributable to lower status players not getting enough starts, player injuries not serious enough to apply for a “medical” or the simple bad luck of life.
The Tour already allows for that eventuality by granting the players who finished 126 to 150 conditional status for the following year. They are still in the unenviable position of not having sufficient status to pick and choose their starts. And it’s not just starts, it’s consecutive starts so that they can get some sort of competitive rhythm going in their games. It’s the reason that so many players play the week before a major; they don’t want to go into something so important cold.
Part of the reason the Tour appears to be doing this is to be able to entice a new sponsor for the Nationwide Tour. Nationwide has announced that 2012 is their last year. The feeling is that the current four-tournament Fall Series currently presented as the last gasp, last chance effort for Tour players to keep their cards isn’t as much of a draw as this new three-tournaments-for-a-card series would be.
But that’s as much a marketing problem as it is a reflection of viewer interest. The problem is that so much energy and attention has been invested in the year-long FedExCup race culminating with its four-tournament rush for the Cup, fans are left with the sense that the season is over. After all, we had the top 120 players winnowed down to the top 100 winnowed down to the top 70 and finally winnowed down to the top 30. Who could be left? Besides, football has started!
The answer to that question is the Tour’s marketing problem. They have survived all these years because they have been the most notable meritocracy in the world. Other sports’ players have to produce statistics by the end of the year (RBIs, rushing yards, points and goals) but most of them are doing so on two or three-year contracts. On the PGA Tour, you either post a score to win a check or you don’t. You either make enough money by the end of the year to get into the top 125 or you don’t. And most of the players who don’t are pretty sanguine about it, “Hey, I just should have played better.” That very adult reaction rather than the wheedling and whining we’ve all grown used to over some of life’s disappointments in other quarters .
They are trying to find a way to give the college kids direct access rather than doing a year on the Nationwide’s successor. But its current form is giving the great amateurs the chance to include the money they would have made if they were pros when they played on the Tour on sponsor’s exemptions. Last year’s UCLA sensation, Patrick Cantlay, would have made enough phantom money to get into the Closed Shop Open. But what about the natural talents who don’t have the connections to get sponsor’s exemptions or whose stats don’t overcome a Tour player with a name vying for that same exemption?
The beauty of the current system is that it’s a self-selection system. If you think you can play and you can cobble together the $4,500 entry fee for Q-School, your future is in your own hands, not in the hands of the members of the Tour policy board who have already judged you to be unworthy without making a swing.
There is already plenty of drama in the Fall Series. The Tour just has to do as good a job of promoting its drama as it already does for the FedExCup. You can’t watch a golf broadcast without being hammered by the “excitement and drama” of the Cup race. I doubt many beyond diehard golf fans could even come up with the name, “The Fall Series,” let alone tell you that it’s the last chance for Tour players to earn enough money to keep their cards.
The Q-School has its built-in lore and tradition, but this year they only broadcast the last three of the six rounds. Maybe instead of more, viewers want less. Maybe it has to be reduced to a traditional four-day tournament—still with no cut—and fewer players, say the standard 144 in a regular Tour event. They already grant such a wide swath of players through from the first and second stages, it wouldn’t take much to reduce it from 160 to 144. Then the tournament becomes an annual burst of opportunity rather than the death march too unwieldy to broadcast it has turned into.
Whatever the Tour chooses, the answer lies more in the direction of better marketing than it does protectionist policies that would unnecessarily delay the young, exuberant lifeblood of the Tour’s future or preclude the grizzled mini-tour player out in the nation’s Sunbelt who was finally able to get together the money for Q-School.