News & Opinion

Tour’s finishing school produces winners

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The Motor City has embraced the PGA Tour’s inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic this week, but Detroit’s municipal-golf scene would benefit from a similar jolt of enthusiasm.

The romance of Q-School was intoxicating. The idea of players competing for a yearlong job over six mind-racing, stomach-churning days, knowing that if they didn’t succeed, there weren’t many golf playing options created drama like none other in the game.

The PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament – known as Q-School – was held each fall with 144 players scraping and clawing for 25 exempt spots (and ties) on the Tour for the following year. Most Tour players who lost their cards were exempt into Final Stage, but many in each year’s field fought through the first and second stages of qualifying for a chance to chase their dreams.

Q-School largely has been gone since 2013, when the event started being used for access to the development tour. The path to the PGA Tour today passes through the Korn Ferry Tour, which started in 1990 as the Ben Hogan Tour. (Since then, sponsors have included Nike, Buy.com, Nationwide and Web.com. Korn Ferry came on as sponsor two weeks ago).

And while the nostalgic among us might pine for Q-School, we have to concede that players who reach the PGA Tour after graduating from the developmental tour have many more tools to walk in and immediately be successful.

That’s because the Korn Ferry Tour is filled with top-level players who are capable of shooting low – crazy low – scores every week. Outside of the early-season Caribbean tournaments, it has taken scores of 15-26 under to win each week on the Korn Ferry Tour. The result is that players come to the PGA Tour absolutely fearless because they’ve not only learned how to shoot 63 on Thursday but to shoot 66 or better on Sunday – with the lead.

At the Wichita Open two weeks ago, there was a five-way playoff at 15 under par. Of the five players to go extra holes, three shot 66 on Sunday, one shot 65 and the other 67.

When the Hogan Tour was created three decades ago by then-commissioner Deane Beman, it was designed to be a place to play for those who lost their PGA Tour cards the year before. In 1990, the debut season, there were 30 tournaments and the top five players on the money list earned a ticket back to the big tour the next year. Q-School was still the path to the PGA Tour for players coming out of college.

Today, the Korn Ferry Tour has 24 regular-season events, and now there are two ways to graduate to the PGA Tour. The top 25 players on the points list during the regular season get their Tour cards. But additionally, there are three events at the end of the season – the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, in which 75 developmental-tour players and Nos. 126-200 on the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup list compete in three events, with the top 25 on that mini money list earning status on the PGA Tour.

All you have to do is look at the PGA Tour schedule to determine what a success the developmental tour has become. Cameron Champ, who won the Sanderson Farms Championship in October, finished No. 6 on the minor-league money list – with a victory – just a couple of months before his first PGA Tour victory, in Mississippi. Incidentally, he made birdies on five of his last six holes on Sunday, to win the Sanderson Farms by four shots at 21 under.

Xander Schauffele, who won the WGC-HSBC Champions in October and the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January, made it to the PGA Tour through the developmental-tour finals in 2016 and was PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 2017. He has won four times on the PGA Tour and is considered one of the best young players in the game.

Schauffele won in China in a playoff over Tony Finau, who was No. 8 on the Web.com Tour money list in 2014 with a victory. Finau is thought by many to be one of the next breakout players on the PGA Tour.

Matt Kuchar, who won at Mayakoba and the Sony Open in Hawaii, played and graduated from what then was known as the Nationwide Tour in 2006. Keith Mitchell, who won at Honda, got to the PGA Tour from the Web.com Tour Finals in 2017. Major champions Justin Thomas, Jason Day, Bubba Watson and Zach Johnson are graduates of the developmental tour.

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Nate Lashley

The list goes on, and gets longer by the year.

On Sunday, the roster of developmental-tour alumni to win on the PGA Tour grew. Nate Lashley, in his second year on the big tour, ran away with a 25-under total and six-stroke victory in the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic.

Xinjun Zhang, Robbie Shelton and Scottie Scheffler are the top three on this year’s Korn Ferry Tour points list, and all three are practically guaranteed to graduate to the big tour next season. Shelton and Scheffler were highly ranked amateurs and college players. Shelton played the Korn Ferry Tour last year, and this is Scheffler’s first year on the developmental tour.

No one would be surprised if any of the three found themselves with a winner’s trophy next season on the PGA Tour – particularly not the players themselves. They will leave the Korn Ferry Tour ready to succeed at the next level. It’s not guaranteed success, of course.

But they will arrive on Tour in the fall much better prepared than they would have been coming out of Q-School alone. It was fun to watch in the old days, but this is 2019. And the best players look like they are graduating to the Tour from a season-long preparatory school with a higher level of education.

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: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf