News & Opinion

Golf's Dead-end Year stymies PGA Tour wannabes

TPC Sawgrass 17th green
Much like the pathway onto the PGA Tour’s island-green 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course, the route to the PGA Tour these days is narrow and not easy to negotiate.

More so than any other year, this coronavirus-altered season has changed the paths of aspiring PGA Tour players so much so that for many, graduate school, not Q-School, emerges as the next step

Getting to the PGA Tour is now like the old joke in which a farmer struggles to respond to a lost traveler’s request for directions: “Well … I reckon y’all cain’t get there from here.”

The 2020 PGA Tour is virtually a closed shop. It seems likely that this will be remembered as Golf’s Dead-end Year … unless Tiger Woods performs extraordinary heroics.

There is no realistic path to the PGA Tour this year for non-tour members, barring the double miracle of beating 144 other pros for one of two Monday qualifying spots and then winning the actual event. Good luck with that. Powerball jackpot odds are only slightly worse.

Most of the blame for the PGA Tour’s new closed-shop status falls on the coronavirus pandemic that short-sheeted the PGA Tour season. There were no good options to fix this unexpected shutdown.

The fairest way might have been to share the pain. Instead, PGA Tour players will “shelter in place” in a different way. Those with exempt status or partial exempt status will keep it for an additional year and enjoy the equivalent of one and two-thirds seasons with status. All others will go two full years without it.

That’ll be 36 events this season, down from the original 49, if all goes as planned, but the 2019-20 season won’t end there. It will roll over into 2020-21 and keep going. No PGA Tour players will be sent down to the minors, so to speak. No Korn Ferry Tour players will advance to the big tour. There will be no Q-School to get onto the KFT. And there will be no Mackenzie Tour, period. Sorry, Canadian fans. Its season was wiped out.

Well, if you expected members of the Player Advisory Council to vote themselves out of million-dollar-a-year jobs because a few events got canceled, you’re probably still waiting for Congress to defund itself for being incompetent time-wasters.

Collegians are the ones getting the worst deal in this Dead-end Year. That’s no surprise. They get the worst deal every year.

They used to have a fair shot at getting to the PGA Tour right out of college, back when we had an anxiety-filled event called Q-School. Those who survived two qualifying stages advanced to a six-round, 108-hole finale. It was a brutal marathon, a cauldron of pressure. The top 25 finishers and ties over 108 holes earned PGA Tour cards for the next season.

A top college player could play in the NCAA Championship in June, compete in a U.S. or Western Amateur and a Walker Cup, then go to Q-School that fall. Even if he didn’t get a card for the big tour, he could lock up a solid position on the secondary tour, whether it be called the Hogan, Nike, Nationwide or whatever tour.

Those days ended in 2012 when the PGA Tour revamped Q-School in an effort to make it sexier for TV coverage and more attractive to sponsors. The replacement was the Tour’s four-event playoff series, akin to the FedEx Cup.

The top 25 finishers in the playoffs earned PGA Tour status, along with the top 25 finishers from the regular season. Whether the new system is a better way to identify PGA Tour-quality talent is up for debate, but it wasn’t about that. It was about making a more marketable format and selling it. Based on that, it’s a success.

Under this current system, college stars go to Q-School in the fall – a Q-School that gets them only to the Korn Ferry Tour, if they make it.

Those who don’t get KFT status and those who have partial, non-exempt KFT status are free to try Monday qualifying. Except this season, the KFT cut Monday spots from 12 to eight before the pandemic. The first KFT event in the season restart two weeks ago in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., had eight Monday qualifiers from two sites. The number of spots for PGA Tour events that have Monday qualifying – not all do – was reduced from four to two.

At first glance, 2020 looks like the worst year ever to be a senior.

The NCAA granted spring-sport seniors a fifth year of eligibility due to the pandemic that prematurely ended their seasons. Many top collegiate golfers will take that route.

“I’ve talked to 50 Division I coaches, and almost every one of their seniors is coming back,” said Gregg Grost, chief executive officer of the Golf Coaches Association of America. “There’s no other place for them to play. Most college kids see this as a savior. They get another year of golf at no charge.

“I know one highly ranked kid who said, ‘I was trying to figure out if I was going to graduate at all. Now I’m going to grad school. That’s pretty cool. If you’d told me I was going to go to grad school, I would’ve laughed. Everyone who knows me would’ve laughed, and my parents would’ve said, Yeah, right. And I’m still going to be on tour in a year.’ ”

In 2021, the PGA Tour will initiate PGA Tour University and create its own rankings of college players based on tournament results. A handful of top-ranked collegians will get exemptions into fields of KFT, Mackenzie and Latinoamerica events after the NCAA Championship concludes, and earn exemptions into the final stage of KFT qualifying.

This idea is a step in the right direction, even though it doesn’t solve the real problem: the lack of a direct path from college to the PGA Tour. This might be a poor analogy, but the NBA doesn’t make top collegians spend a season playing in Turkey if they’re legitimately NBA-ready.

A simpler solution for golf’s closed-shop problem would be to award PGA Tour cards to the top two finishers at KFT Q-School. At least that would create a path – a very narrow path but better than nothing – for the best of the best and make the PGA Tour an open shop, even if the door isn’t open much.

As for inventing new college rankings, all rankings have problems beyond math. Even after two decades, does anyone really think the Official World Golf Ranking has gotten it right? Results from Asia are overweighted, many believe, while results from KFT are underweighted.

College golf already has a smug big-school bias in which players at smaller programs get less respect because they don’t play for a top-20 golf power. Troy Merritt of Boise State and Jason Kokrak of Xavier are two examples of players from smaller schools who found PGA Tour success but never got the recognition they deserved in college because of where they played.

Ranking players who don’t compete in the same college events is like comparing apples and ball-peen hammers. Rankings sound fun until they matter. Then, with career opportunities on the line, PGA Tour University rankings likely will get contentious.

Still, these rankings and exemptions are better than nothing for college golfers, even though Boise State’s next Troy Merritt might not get any more respect under this system than the original Troy Merritt, who won seven times in his senior season, including five in a row, yet didn’t make first-team All-American.

Being slighted didn’t stop the original Merritt. He won a Nationwide Tour event, then went to the six-round Q-School in 2009 and became only the third player to lead it after every round. He got his PGA Tour card in a way that seems antiquated in this age of metrics and rankings.

He shot the lowest scores.

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