News & Opinion

All-exempt PGA Tour elevates golf into big leagues

Nearly 4 decades ago, Gary McCord’s idea makes ‘rabbits’ extinct and adds stability to U.S. circuit

Making a living playing tournament golf takes equal parts passion, preparation, persistence and perseverance. Talent is the last ingredient. In fact, the woods are full of talented golfers, seemingly more now than at any other time in the game’s history.

But no amount of any of those qualities ensures financial success. Pay always has been based strictly on performance, but sports’ ultimate meritocracy has been much harsher to its players in its recent past than it is now. There was a time when even mid-tier players drove from tournament to tournament, shared cheap motel rooms and skimped on virtually every expense.

Today, you’d have to search down golf’s food chain to the bottom of the Korn Ferry Tour and even to the mini-tours to find players in over their heads, engaged in subsistence living while struggling to make ends meet playing golf.

In 1983, the difference between professional golf’s haves and have-nots was widely pronounced. The comparisons are stark: Craig Stadler led the 1982 PGA Tour money list with $446,462. Bobby Wadkins was No. 60 with $69,400 and at No. 125, Larry Mize earned $28,787 – in 28 events.

The reason No. 60 on the 1982 money list was relevant is that only the top 60 were fully exempt for the next year. The rest of the players, save for a few other exemptions that included tournament winners, were compelled to qualify every Monday for that week’s tournament to fill out the field, which was usually 144.

The qualifiers were called “rabbits,” ostensibly because they chased the Tour every week. But it was mostly because many of them would wind up as roadkill before the season was over, victims of too many expenses and too few birdies.

Gary McCord at the 2013 Toshiba Classic First Round
Today’s all-exempt PGA Tour can trace its roots to TV funnyman Gary McCord and his masterstroke in the early 1980s.

No one on today’s PGA Tour – except maybe Mark Russell, the Tour’s vice president for rules and competition – even remembers Monday qualifying at that level. And it’s a good bet that none of the twentysomething Tour players has any idea that such a system ever existed. That’s because today, the top 125 each year are exempt and the “rabbits” are long extinct.

And everyone on Tour has Gary McCord to thank.

Believe it or not, McCord, the popular and severely off-center CBS announcer, is responsible for creating the plan that became the all-exempt PGA Tour that was adopted and put into place by then-commissioner Deane Beman 35 years ago.

The path to the final plan did not exactly follow a straight line. But its genesis was in 1973. McCord got his PGA Tour card that fall, finishing tied for second at the Tour’s Qualifying School with Gil Morgan – a whopping 12 shots behind medalist Ben Crenshaw. McCord estimates that about 1,000 players entered the first stage of Q-School. He survived and set out to make his fortune on Tour in 1974.

“I show up for the L.A. Open, and when I registered, I was told that I was going to qualify on Monday at Los Serranos Country Club – about 50 miles inland,” McCord said. “I asked why there was no qualifier in L.A. I was told there was a qualifier there, too.

“ ‘Too?’ I asked.”

Come to find that there were two qualifiers that week – with 180 players at each site. And that wasn’t the worst of it. There was only one spot available at each qualifier for the tournament proper that started on Thursday.

“I had an afternoon starting time at Los Serranos, and when I got there, one guy had already shot 63. I played nine holes and I was even or maybe 1 under. I got in the car and went home.

“Welcome to the Tour. Think this is going to be fun?”

As it turned out in those days, Class A PGA of America professionals could enter Monday qualifying at PGA Tour events. A high number of club pros wintered in California and spent their Mondays trying to qualify for Tour events on the West Coast.

When the club pros went back east for the summer, the rabbits’ life was more manageable, but not by much. Still, during a typical week on Tour, about 120 players tried competing on Mondays for 20-25 spots in the tournament, a daunting task for anyone.

In 1974, winner’s checks ranged from $18,000 at the Tallahassee Open to $60,000 at the World Open Golf Championship. Most were in the $30,000 neighborhood. By 1982, most purses were in the $300,000-$400,000 range, and most winners took home $54,000-$72,000. The Tournament Players Championship – now the Players – paid $90,000 to the winner. The PGA Championship winner got $65,000, and the Masters champion won $64,000.

McCord was qualifying at the Doral-Eastern Open in 1982, and players such as Miller Barber and Don January, who were PGA Tour legends, were in the qualifier. “I looked at it and did my homework, and there were 56 Tour wins total among the guys who were qualifying that week,” he said.

McCord thought this system was not only insane but it was behind the times in sports. Free agency already was in effect in Major League Baseball and the NFL, although pro football was struggling with some aspects of it. But players in major sports were watching their mean salaries go up, while golfers in the middle and bottom still were making ploughman’s wages.

“This is a major sport,” McCord said. “It was basically a bunch of Bedouins going from oasis to oasis, from Monday to Monday,” McCord said. “All you’re doing is spending money chasing dreams.”

McCord gathered a bunch of Golf World magazines and determined that 68 percent of all PGA Tour members were Monday qualifiers in 1982. “Twenty-five percent were exempt, and the rest were filling in,” he said.

McCord missed the Doral qualifier and went home to formulate a new plan. After six weeks of research, he thought that more players should be exempt and that players would get into tournaments based on that exemption pecking order. His number was arbitrary: 135.

With such an arrangement, players could determine their schedules, and if they missed a cut, it wasn’t the end of the world. Under the 1982 system, a Monday qualifier who missed the cut didn’t know when he would get into his next event. With an all-exempt Tour, there would be less pressure on the middle-tier players not only to make a living but to survive.

McCord took his plan to Pensacola, where the Tour was conducting the Pensacola Open. Most of the players were staying at the local Holiday Inn and McCord asked the manager if he’d donate the hotel’s ballroom so that he could hold a player meeting.

“Lo and behold, out of a 144-man field, we had about 100 guys show up,” McCord said. “I outlined the plan. I asked for a show of hands, and a pretty good majority indicated that they were in favor of it. I wanted this to be a labor movement. I wanted a groundswell and have this plan come from the laborers.

“We had been on the back burner when it came to growth, and we needed to grow. There was an elite group of players, and the rest of us were getting the shit kicked out of us. The other sports were doing much better, and we were four to a room and 150 of us playing for four spots. For most of us, it gave us a solid platform on which we could figure out how to perform, how to run our business and how to run our golf games.”

Beman, then the PGA Tour commissioner, got wind of what McCord was up to and summoned him to the Tour’s headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. “I thought I was going to get killed,” McCord said.

Instead, Beman told McCord, “You’re just the guy I need to get this done. We’ve been talking about an expansion of the Tour forever, but this groundswell is the catalyst we need.”

In Beman’s office, the commissioner laid out for McCord an unusual plan. Beman’s idea was that the Tour be split in half – for the sake of comparison, an American League and a National League. There would be a player draft, and each league would play its own schedule. There would be eight events – the four majors, the Players Championship and three others – in which all players would compete.

Every other year, players in one league would switch and play the other. In other words, you’d see Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer in your event every other year.

McCord took his all-exempt plan and Beman’s plan to a player meeting in Houston. First, he presented the commissioner’s plan. “Lanny Wadkins asked, ‘If I’m in the American League and I live in Dallas and the Dallas tournament is in the National League, does that mean I can’t play Dallas?’

“I said, ‘Yes, basically, that’s it.’

“Lanny said, ‘Well, I’m not doing that.’ ”

That was the end of that plan. McCord then presented the all-exempt plan, and the response was overwhelming, even from the top players. The Tour’s board passed it, and the plan was put in place in 1983.

However, by fixing the exempt number at 125, the plan was putting some rabbits out of work. There would still be Monday qualifying, but the number of available spots shrank to four per tournament. And the only reason that qualifying existed at all under the new plan was because of anti-trust laws and the fact that the PGA Tour held a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt designation as a non-profit corporation. Under those laws, the Tour must allow open access.

As a result, the PGA Tour started the Tournament Players Series in 1983 in partnership with the PGA of America, ostensibly to provide a place to play for players below No. 125 on the previous year’s money list. The PGA of America was guaranteed 25 spots, and Tour players ages 45-49 – many of them preparing for the Senior PGA Tour – also had eligibility.

There were 10 events per year on the TPS, and the series was the precursor to the 1990 debut of the Hogan Tour, which is today’s Korn Ferry Tour. Now, the only Q-School is for the Korn Ferry Tour, which, in part, determines status on that tour. Much of the rest comes from the previous year’s points list, just like the big Tour. And there’s a Monday four-spot qualifier.

As a result, there is more access than ever for players who want to play professional golf for a living. And though there seems to be more good players than ever competing for the elite level of the game, no one can blame the system for preventing access.

“My argument has always been that if you’re a good enough player, you’re going to get on the Tour,” McCord said. “I’ve never seen anyone who is really, really good who didn’t get on the Tour. Some of these guys are so good that it doesn’t matter what you throw at them in terms of a process, they’re going to make it.”

But thanks to McCord, the playing field is at least level.