<
>

Don't destroy the beauty of Q-school

On Sunday, after shooting a 3-under 69 to finish in a tie for 30th at the Humana Challenge, William McGirt was cleaning out his locker at PGA West and contemplating the rest of the West Coast swing. He was in this week's field at Torrey Pines, but he wasn't in the next three events. And he wasn't sure whether he would go to Mexico for the Mayakoba Golf Classic. That would depend on how much money he had earned, because that trip would easily cost him $7,000.

The 32-year-old Wofford College graduate is in his second year on the PGA Tour. Last year in his rookie season, the Fairmont, N.C., native played in 32 events and finished 141st on the money list, which forced him to go back to Q-school, where he had gotten to the tour by finishing in a tie for second in 2010.

At Q-school in November, McGirt easily retained his card with a tie for 13th. He had logged more than 50,000 frequent-flier miles in 2011, and he was gratefully headed back to the PGA Tour. It was the second chance he needed to keep the dream alive that had started when he was a toddler at the Fairmont Golf Club.

But as he loaded his golf bag with the extra drivers, wedges and hybrids from his locker, he had a look of exasperation at the thought of the PGA Tour ending Q-school as we know it.

It wasn't a secret around tour locker rooms that the tour was considering revamping the ways players earned their way to the PGA Tour. For years the tour had been chipping away at the number of tour cards awarded at Q-school. With each passing year since it started in 1990, the Nationwide Tour has gained increasing prominence as the top proving ground for future PGA Tour stars. Former Nationwide Tour members have won 14 major championships and 323 PGA Tour events.

Graduates out of Q-school hadn't fared as well in recent years. Retreads -- or players who come back to the school year after year -- were forming the lot of those who made it through every year. Some of the graduates resembled kids like Ty Tryon, who had a great week at Q-school in 2001, but couldn't cut it on the PGA Tour.

Still, Q-school has produced many success stories. It's a place where dreams come true, no matter how long they last.

"I wouldn't have gotten back out here if there wasn't a Q-school," McGirt told me. "If you're good enough to play out here, shouldn't you get the chance to prove it?"

At a mandatory players' meeting Tuesday night at the Farmers Insurance Open, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem laid out a plan that could force a Q-school graduate like McGirt to use the Nationwide Tour to get back to the PGA Tour.

Under the proposed plan, McGirt, who finished 141st on the 2011 money list, would play in a three-tournament fall series along with 74 other PGA Tour players who didn't keep their cards and the top 75 players off the Nationwide Tour. The top 50 out of that series would get their cards and the rest would have the option to go to Q-school, where they could only earn a Nationwide Tour card.

Bo Van Pelt is a member of that 16-member Player Advisory Council that will vote on the proposed changes later this year. The 36-year-old Richmond, Ind., native understands the perspectives of McGirt and the PGA Tour, which wants to make the Nationwide Tour stronger.

Coming out of Oklahoma State in 1998, Van Pelt immediately got this card through Q-school, but missed 21 cuts in his rookie year. After winning on the Nationwide Tour in 2003, he graduated to the PGA Tour, where he's been a stalwart for the last eight years.

"I definitely grew as a player on the Nationwide Tour," Van Pelt said. "But I think the biggest deal is that the tournaments in the fall want to be included in the FedEx Cup. So that means you have to make changes to Q-school and the Nationwide Tour."

Van Pelt wants more clarity about how the players would be ranked for the proposed three-tournament fall schedule.

"How do you seed those guys? That's going to be tough," Van Pelt said.

His other concern is the impact the changes will have on the players.

"We've been doing it the same way for so long," he said. "Guys know what it takes to get on the tour. I think players are concerned about having one season end and another start in the same calendar year.

"Whatever we do, I don't think it's good for the game if we make things so complicated that the average fan doesn't understand what's going on out here."

As the tour gets more feedback from its players over the next several weeks, it's going to be interesting how loudly the voices of middle-class players like McGirt emerge in the discussions. I hope the tour recognizes that Q-school is a unique place in sport for men to realize their dreams. Too many great baseball players have had their careers stalled or killed by seemingly mandatory years in the minor leagues.

Through my years of covering the game, I have known many players to make it through Q-school, only to fail on the big tour and disappear out into the world. But that kind of thing also happens to guys who graduate out of the Nationwide Tour. Heisman Trophy winners wash out of the NFL.

The PGA Tour would do well to find a middle ground, where the Nationwide Tour becomes the primary feeder to the big tour, but where Q-school can still be a direct portal to the pinnacle of the game for some fortunate souls good enough to play well over six rounds.

A three-tournament series might be a better indicator of whether McGirt keeps his card for the next year than a six-round tournament, but what would the game be without a few miracles?

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.