News & Opinion

On eve of opener, nostalgia ebbs

If you’re a golf sentimentalist like I am, we’ve longed for the sheer romance of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, known forever as Q-School and less affectionately by the players as the Fall Classic.

Jobs and careers were at stake each November, fueled by six rounds of hell that frayed already raw nerves and upset stomachs that ended in determining whether players had a place to compete for the coming year. It was great theater and a compelling must-watch at the end of each year.

Remember poor Joe Daley, who hit a 5-footer in the final round in 2000 that bounced off the back of the cup liner and spit the ball back at him? He was incredulous and incensed that he’d been treated that way by the golf gods. Was anyone surprised that he missed getting his card by one shot? It’s part of rich Q-School lore.

But those days are long gone, replaced in 2013 by the Tour Qualifying Tournament, which meant that Q-School was now for spots on the developmental tour. Gaining access to the PGA Tour was almost completely restricted to the top 25 money winners from the previous year’s Tour money list.

Tour officials tried to make the case – against the hue and cry of the romantics – that the developmental tour was the best way to prepare players for big-time golf. Critics maintained that players coming out of college didn’t have access to the PGA Tour, relegated to spending a year in the minor leagues.

That’s not entirely the case. A handful of players leave college each May after the NCAA Championships and get a maximum of seven sponsor exemptions to play the PGA Tour. A top-10 finish in any tournament would merit a spot in the next week’s event, eliminating the need to burn another exemption. By winning enough FedEx Cup points that would rank among the top 125 as a non-member, the player would earn playing privileges for the next season.

Jordan Spieth went that route in 2013 and got a Tour card after failing to advance to the 2012 Q-School finals. Justin Thomas turned pro in 2013, went to Tour Q-School and played on that tour in 2014. He played in seven PGA Tour events that year and didn’t win enough points to earn a Tour card. To his everlasting credit, he didn’t complain. He did his time in the minors and made it to the PGA Tour the next year.

As it turns out, Tour officials were right. The present system is the best way for players to get access to the PGA Tour – by far. The positives overwhelmingly outweigh any sense of drama we miss from the loss of Q-School.

Young players learn how to travel, where to stay, what to eat and where, how much to train and practice and what to prioritize that will enable them to play their best golf. Coming out of college, many players have teams of advisers that help them map out their year on the Tour, which starts a new season Sunday with The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic.

Those who succeed and move onto the PGA Tour have learned all those lessons and more, the most important of which is the lack of fear to shoot low numbers. It seems as if a competitor needs to post a 20-under score each week on the Tour to have a chance to win. What that means is that scores in the low 60s are necessary, sometimes every day, and the successful players don’t protect a good round; they make it better.

The idea of a developmental tour was hatched by former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman and started in 1990 as the Ben Hogan Tour. It since has been sponsored by Nike (1993-99), (2000-02), Nationwide (2003-11) and, since 2012, Graduates include Jeff Maggert, who led the first class with a tour-leading $108,644, Tom Lehman, Jerry Kelly, Stewart Cink, Chad Campbell, Zach Johnson and Jimmy Walker – all of whom led the money list in their respective years and graduated quickly to the big Tour.

Since 2013, the developmental tour expanded its year-end competition with the Tour Finals, four tournaments (reduced to three this year) that include the top 75 players on the Tour and Nos. 126-150 on the PGA Tour. In addition to the 25 cards already handed out to the top players on the Tour, 25 more cards are offered to players who finish in the top 25 of the Finals.

It’s not as sexy as the pre-2013 Q-School, not by a long shot. But it’s a reasonable second chance for players who didn’t earn a return trip to the Tour through their finishes during the “regular season.”

You rarely get everything you want in golf, whether you’re playing or watching. There will be no more nail-chewing moments experienced by players who are desperately pushing and struggling to get a job on the PGA Tour for the next year.

The good is often the enemy of the best. On the PGA Tour, good TV has been replaced by the best thing for the overall health of professional golf. Unfortunately, for those of us who perennially wax sentimental, we’ll always have Joe Daley.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email:; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf