News & Opinion

Major pedigree for a minor league

The Korn Ferry Tour, the gateway to the PGA Tour, turns 30 this year and has established itself as a stern test for future champions

The Korn Ferry Tour, or whatever it’s called this week, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. And over those three decades, it has been many things to many people. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember it started as the Ben Hogan Tour.

Jeff Maggert was the leading money winner in 1990, with two victories and a princely $108,644. Pro-golf lifer Dick Mast was third, David Toms was fourth, Brandel Chamblee was seventh and John Daly was ninth on the money list.

It was created by then-PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman to be a developmental tour, a pathway to the big Tour. It was billed as the equivalent of Class AAA in Major League Baseball. And it largely has maintained its charter. But one of the most remarkable seasons was in 1995, when lifelong amateur Allen Doyle turned professional to prepare for the Senior PGA Tour.

US Open Championship 2012
Darron Stiles, the longest-tenured player on the Korn Ferry Tour, has been up and down from golf’s version of Class AAA since 1997.

At age 46, with a flat, quick backswing, a 250-ish-yard driving average, and a short but deadly putting stroke, Doyle won three times on the Nike Tour and finished second on the money list. You can’t imagine, with the modern game and all the bombers on today’s Korn Ferry Tour, that Doyle possibly could survive out there.

Historically, there have been a dozen or so ways to qualify for the Korn Ferry Tour. Now the main way is the Korn Ferry Qualifying Tournament that replaced PGA Tour Q-School, which was beloved by the media and reviled by the players.

PGA Tour officials didn’t want Q-School to be the path to the big tour, instead making the 45 cards it hands out to be admission only to the Korn Ferry Tour. Players on the PGA Tour who finish 126-200 on the FedEx Cup points list now avoid Q-School and have the opportunity to regain their playing privileges in the Korn Ferry Tour Finals.

But there are a handful of other ways PGA Tour players can be eligible for regular-season Korn Ferry tournaments, which is why you see so many recognizable names out there for one reason or another. At last week’s Bahamas Great Abaco Classic, won by Jared Wolfe and the second tournament of 2020, nine PGA Tour winners were in the field.

Sean O’Hair, Camilo Villegas, David Lingmerth, Derek Ernst, Alex Cejka, Robert Garrigus, Tommy Gainey, Eric Axley and Robert Allenby have all won on the PGA Tour, and most of this group has had long-term success.

O’Hair played on a major medical extension as did Villegas, who hasn’t played on Tour since 2017-18. Gainey, who won the first Korn Ferry event of the year, is on another rehab assignment of sorts, having been arrested in Florida in December in a prostitution sting.

The rest of the field was littered with players who have spent at least one year on the PGA Tour and lost their cards a multitude of ways, many of whom are Korn Ferry Tour winners. Most of the rest were either rookies or players who have spent one or more years on the Korn Ferry without reaching the PGA Tour. And even if you follow professional golf closely, you’ve never heard of many of those guys.

And then there is Scott Gutschewski, who at 43 has been out there since 2003 and has spent only two seasons on the big tour. He’s won twice on the Korn Ferry Tour, and injuries kept him out of the better part of two seasons. To his credit, he tied for ninth at the Abaco event.

But Gutschewski isn’t the longest-tenured Korn Ferry player. That title belongs to Darron Stiles, who started in 1997 and has played five seasons on the PGA Tour. At age 46, he is the KFT’s all-time leading money winner, with a little more than $2.1 million in 348 starts. He hasn’t played a full schedule since 2016.

The bottom line is that it’s harder than ever to make it to the PGA Tour and more difficult still to stay there. The reason seems to be that there are more players than ever who are tour-caliber. They not only have the ability to make a living but to go out and win – such as Matthew Wolff and Collin Morikawa, each of whom won within weeks of turning pro.

Just look at players who won in the fall on the PGA Tour, such as Lanto Griffin and Tyler Duncan, whom not many people could pick out of a lineup before they won.

If there are 144 players in the field in a Korn Ferry Tour event, there are 144 different stories. And any one of the players – or more – can go at any time from anonymity to a household name. And because of the cruel nature of the professional game, in the blink of an eye, the opposite is also true.

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