News & Opinion

Secret to golf's minors: Just play better

SAVANNAH, Ga. – The Web.com Tour is billed as the developmental steppingstone to golf’s ultimate showcase, the PGA Tour. As such, one wouldn’t expect to see a former Masters champion and a former Ryder Cup player in a Web.com field.

But that was nearly the case this week at the Savannah Golf Championship, where Mike Weir and Boo Weekley stood out among the 154 entrants – at least until Weekley walked in after five holes of the Wednesday pro-am and withdrew because of injury.

Weir claims career earnings just shy of $28 million and eight PGA Tour titles, including his 2003 green jacket. He posted a 13-9-2 record in five Presidents Cups. Weekley has won three times on the big show, banking nearly $15 million. He was 2-0-1 at the 2008 Ryder Cup, where he infuriated the European side and endeared himself to the U.S. crowd by galloping down Valhalla’s first fairway, astride his driver, to ignite his 4-and-2 singles victory over Oliver Wilson.

Weir and Weekley weren’t the only entrants here who display PGA Tour hardware in their trophy cases. Frankie “The Blade” Lickliter is a two-time winner with $12 million in PGA Tour earnings; Smylie Kaufman won the 2015 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open and is competing here on a major medical extension.

By any measure, Weir, Weekley and Lickliter – all in their mid-to-late 40s – are fully developed professional golfers. Is it fair that the Web.com Tour accommodates players of their stature? Those who competed in the 18-hole Monday qualifier but failed to make the grade probably don’t think so. My answer to them: Keep trying, and play better.

At least half the field at a typical Web.com Tour tournament is composed of former college standouts who still are in their 20s or early 30s. Most can claim some all-American, or at least all-conference, credentials. Most began competing on the American Junior Golf Association circuit and have significant national or state amateur victories on their resumes. More than a few already have had a cup of coffee on the PGA Tour.

Their time will come.

The rest of the field are late-30s, 40-somethings. Similar credentials, only a bit more dated. They understand all too well the finest of fine lines – and strokes of good fortune – that separate them from those who’ve made it and survived, if not thrived, on the PGA Tour. They may not have lived up to expectations, but they love the competition and possess unshakable confidence in their ability finally to break through.

But the hard truth is that they have few, if any, career options. The golf industry is sucking wind, meaning club-pro opportunities – at least those with salaries that match even middle-of-the-pack earnings on the Web.com Tour – are virtually non-existent. Besides, do they really want to give up the pro-golf lifestyle, even at the second level, to give lessons and fold shirts? Or sell cars, insurance or real estate? Not likely. Even those with college degrees that otherwise would make them viable job candidates likely would find the employment gap created by following their golf dream unsurmountable. Legions of digital-savvy millennials already have passed them by.

As for the likes of Weir and Weekley, their presence on the Web.com Tour isn’t much different than baseball’s minor leagues, where former players apprentice as managers and injured major-leaguers are sent down for rehab.

Three spots in every Web.com Tour event are reserved for PGA Tour players age 48-49, giving them an opportunity to prep for the Champions Tour. Weir turns 49 in May, and he plans on playing a full Web.com schedule this season. Ditto for Tour journeyman Brett Quigley, 49, who occupies the other soon-to-be-senior berth.

Weekley, 45, is hoping to play his way back into form after being sidelined for 14 months following surgery to relieve tendinitis in his right elbow, then another operation last July to remove carcinoma in his right shoulder. He posted a T-35 at the PGA Tour’s Puerto Rico Open last month and tied for 10th last week at the Web.com’s Chitimacha Louisiana Open – carding a second-round 63 – but suffered a setback in Savannah. This time it was a back problem.

Fans of Boo can take solace in that he’s familiar with overcoming adversity. For five years, Weekley knocked around on mini-tours in his native Florida Panhandle before earning Tour status with a T-23 finish at Q-School in 2001. He lost his exempt status after missing the cut in 18 of 24 starts in ’02. That led to four years of toil on the Nationwide (now Web.com) Tour, regaining his PGA Tour card via that route in 2006. Two years later, he cracked the top 25 in the Official World Golf Ranking.

The PGA Tour contends that by bringing the Mackenzie Tour (Canada), Latinoamerica Tour and the PGA Tour of China under its umbrella in 2013-14 it actually provides more opportunities and options for the young Boo Weekleys of the world. The season-ending top five players on each of those circuits are awarded Web.com Tour status, and all three tours have performance-based criteria for exemptions into the Web.com Tour Qualifying Tournament. The Latinoamerica Tour also has a regional developmental series that promotes its top 15 players to the parent tour.

Each Web.com Tour event reserves a generous allotment of 12 spots in the field via Monday qualifying. The Savannah Golf Championship drew more than 240 contestants on Monday, and it took only a round of 67 at one site and 66 at the other to make the grade. It’s an achievement not to be dismissed; 23 Monday qualifiers have gone on to win those respective events, including three times from 2014 to 2018.

Lastly, the Web.com Tour Qualifying Tournament – successor to the PGA Tour’s storied Q-School – is a traditional pathway to the second-tier circuit. Entrants have the opportunity to advance via regional pre-qualifying, first-stage and second-stage tournaments, this year culminating in the 72-hole final in early December at Orange County National Golf Center near Orlando. The top 40 will earn some form of status on the Web.com Tour for 2020.

PGA Tour aspirants who have found the aforementioned avenues blocked no doubt are crying foul. They’re stymied, because the PGA Tour’s monopoly on “developmental golf” has doomed traditional mini-tours to irrelevancy. Winning 10 tournaments on, say, the SwingThought.com Tour doesn’t even get you a bus ticket to Orlando.

No sympathy here. If your game is such that it needs to be honed at today’s mini-tour level, the odds of making it to the PGA Tour are astronomical. The only upside is the opportunity to earn enough money to sustain your delusion for another week.

Golf is a meritocracy, rewarding achievement. Those journeymen who have had fits and starts on the PGA Tour and now find themselves as old sages on the Web.com aren’t stealing any 20-something’s opportunity for advancement. They’ve simply been rewarded for perseverance and resiliency.

The game, at every level, is also Darwinian. Only the strong survive. If pro golf is the life you’ve chosen, then deal with it.

Dave Seanor has been a sports journalist since 1975, including a 13-year stint as editor of Golfweek magazine. He has covered golf in 25 countries, including the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. Email: daveseanor@gmail.com