The PGA Tour is the ultimate longest-running meritocracy in all of sports. Nowhere else are athletes allowed to compete and be rewarded for performance quite like the Tour. If you catch a hot week, you, too, can play in the big time. It’s one of the best things about professional golf.
Until now. A proposal in the hands of the PGA Tour Policy Board threatens to eliminate one of the most basic and open avenues to the Tour and, in the bargain, do away with one of the most dramatic tournaments of the year.
The Tour’s Qualifying Tournament, known with a twisted affection among the players as the Fall Classic, is about to disappear from the landscape. It could be replaced with a three-tournament series at year’s end with a mix of Tour players who don’t qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs and the top Nationwide Tour players.
Under the proposal, somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 Tour players who don’t make the top 125 and the top 50 players from the Nationwide Tour money list would play three tournaments with the top 50 from that series gaining their Tour playing privileges for the following year. The numbers aren’t exact yet but they are the numbers most people are talking about.
The Qualifying Tournament would be eliminated and replaced with a qualifier that would gain access to the Nationwide Tour only.
This plan is obviously not completely baked and there are at least a couple of things wrong with it. First, the Qualifying Tournament is filled to the rim and overflowing with sturm and drang. The raw emotion compels players to live and die with each errant shot, each pulled putt.
Especially on the final day, when jobs and careers are on the line, Q-School is unparalleled in drama. First-timers with fresh hopes and dreams are freely mixed with Tour veterans who are desperate to salvage the only livelihood they’ve ever known. The juxtaposition is remarkable. Each player sweats bullets for six days, all for different reasons, all with the same goal – to chase a living playing the game they love.
All told, it is wonderful television. Golf Channel does the honors and it is simply one of the best telecasts of the year. It’s the only televised golf event that more attention is paid to those in 25th place than those in the lead.
To make Q-School go away would not only deprive golf fans from the opportunity to watch some of the game’s best players under the ultimate in stress, it would leave a void in the game, left empty by a tradition that makes the game so unique among sports.
The other basic flaw in the plan is that it restricts the playing opportunities for those coming out of college. No longer would a player be able to enter Q-School right out of school with the chance of making the Tour. J.B. Holmes and Dustin Johnson both took that route and both won on Tour in their rookie seasons. Rickie Fowler came out of college, got his card in Q-School and made the Ryder Cup team.
Those stories would become a thing of the past, if the Tour has its way. The only way that college players could avoid the Nationwide Tour is to get into events on sponsor’s exemptions and make enough money to get a card for the following season. Otherwise, college players would be relegated to the Nationwide Tour right out of the gate. Ask Peter Uihlein or David Chung if that’s their preferred route to the Tour.
No other sport restricts the movement of players coming out of college. In football, basketball and baseball, if young men are good enough, they play on the big stage right away.
To boot, players who finish outside the top 150 on the Tour’s money list – who didn’t retain their playing privileges in the three-event shootout – would have no avenue back to the Tour the following year. They would be relegated to the Nationwide Tour automatically.
The reason for all this hoop jumping and apple cart upsetting is that the PGA Tour wants to put more meat on the bones of the Nationwide Tour. Nationwide, the umbrella sponsor, is leaving after the 2012 season to concentrate its sponsorship efforts on the Memorial Tournament, in its corporate hometown of Columbus, Ohio.
The Tour wants the new sponsor to have added value, and there’s nothing on the surface wrong with that. But it’s really not clear how this new format would accomplish that goal. Nationwide Tour graduates dominate the Tour these days and there’s no question that it’s relevant and vital to the growth of the Tour.
Eliminating Q-School doesn’t seem to make any sense nor does it seem to advance the cause of a stronger Nationwide Tour.
In Q-School, everyone starts the week on equal ground. If this current proposal finds its way into Tour policy, it will create a system in which some are more equal than others. In golf, there’s no merit to that kind of thinking.