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Decision Variables Change For Top Amateurs

SEA ISLAND, GEORGIA l The Jones Cup, played annually at the fabulous Ocean Forest Golf Club at Sea Island, Ga., represents the first stirrings of the new year for competitive amateur golf in America.

This year, several of the competitors, and several more who were not here, are facing an important decision about their golf careers: To turn, or not to turn? That is the question.

Do I turn pro in 2012 before the PGA Tour overhauls its Qualifying School process, or do I wait?

The question arises due to expected changes the PGA Tour will make in 2013 with the traditional Q-School process. This change is a domino in a chain that began with a decision by Nationwide Insurance to discontinue the sponsorship of its namesake developmental tour at the end of 2012. Selling sponsorship in this environment is a chore at best, and the Tour was finding few takers at the price-tag they put on it.

So, the traditional Q-School became collateral damage in an effort to hang more bells and whistles off the developmental tour. Beginning in the fall of 2013, the Tour plans to run a three-tournament series made up of the next 75 players who did not make the FedEx Cup playoffs and the top 75 players from the developmental tour. Fifty of those 150 players would earn Tour cards. The rest would go to Q-School to earn status on the developmental tour, not the big tour. No more Rickie Fowler or Dustin Johnson- like situations, where they went from college straight to the PGA Tour.

Not that the developmental tour is all that bad; pros of prior generations will remind you just how hard it was to find a place to play and grow prior to the creation of the Nationwide Tour. But there are no courtesy cars, galleries, or instant riches. And the drama of Q-School finals will disappear.

The Tour believes, and probably has reams of data to support this, that most players have a better chance at long-term success after developmental tour seasoning. It may well also be trying to protect a group of journeymen pros, who are likely to become road kill as the next generation brings the power game to the PGA Tour. But does the Ponte Vedra Beach brass have to eliminate a tradition dating back to 1965 that, quite frankly, is more compelling than the FedEx Cup money grab? Couldn’t the Tour leave a few spots on the big stage for Q-School graduates, as veteran Steve Stricker suggested?

Unfortunately for fans of Q-School, it has no natural voting constituency, and so the Tour can pretty much do what it wants here with little push back. Tradition and sentimentality will always lose out to the dollar in Ponte Vedra Beach. And the players who arrived on Tour via this route seem to have forgotten how they got there, or have otherwise been muted.

This question is very acute for two amateurs in particular – world No. 1 Patrick Cantlay, and No. 2 Jordan Spieth. Both have proven that they can play in the big leagues. In fact, both will tee it up at the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles later this month.

Cantlay’s magical summer of 2011 would have earned him almost $350,000 if he were a member of the PGA Tour, and Spieth has twice made the cut at the Byron Nelson Tour stop in his hometown of Dallas. Cantlay is a sophomore at UCLA, while Spieth is in the middle of his first year at Texas. Are they willing to wait and pass up the last Q-School that provides an opportunity to go straight to the big leagues?

As late as the U.S. Amateur in August, Cantlay and his team were adamant that the plan was to graduate from UCLA. I take them at their word, although August was a long time ago and the policy changes were not so clear back then. Spieth, on the other hand, has been cagey about his plans, sounding more like a football coach rumored to be heading to a bigger school but is in full denial, despite the obvious signals. His caginess is just what the agent community wants to hear; no doubt agents are whispering in his and his parent’s ear about the potential lucre at stake, and the risk of waiting until 2013 or beyond to turn.

One close observer of the amateur game suggested recently that Spieth’s decision could be influenced by the outcome of the current college golf campaign. Should Texas win the NCAA Championship, Spieth may well turn before the summer amateur circuit begins. Currently, Texas is the top-ranked team in the nation and has to be considered the favorite to win the national title.

Several others are likely looking carefully at this situation, weighing the pros and cons and listening to their parents, coaches and agents. It is a shame that these kids are being put in this situation, but they are learning very early in their career that pro golf is a business.


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