Decoding tour's scheduling changes
Plenty of questions remain unanswered, many details need to be worked out. But this much is clear: The PGA Tour is undergoing its biggest fundamental change in 30 years, since a journeyman pro now known for his television work was behind the all-exempt tour we know today.
It was Gary McCord's idea to have a system in which 125 players would be exempt each year, a plan that has served the tour well over the course of three decades.
While 125 will remain the magic number as far as exempt status, how a player achieves that status -- and how he gets on tour in the first place -- will undergo a radical change beginning late next year when, for the first time, the PGA Tour will wrap its season around two calendars.
Not even going to the FedEx Cup model in 2007 was as big of a change as this will be when it commences in 2013.
Commissioner Tim Finchem announced Tuesday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando the changes that have been on blackboards and in back rooms for most of the past year. The PGA Tour's policy board approved the new plan that will significantly alter the annual PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament and bring a hard end to the golf season.
"I think we were persuaded that there were a number of strong advantages to move it down this road," Finchem said.
The new plan has plenty of skeptics, even among players, who wonder if there was really anything that needed fixing.
The PGA Tour is healthy, all but fully sponsored, with record purses, a television deal signed for the next decade and an extension of the FedEx Cup deal through 2016.
If there is a positive development, it is that the tour season will conclude starting in 2013 with the Tour Championship. Those who qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs by finishing among the top 125 points earners will be fully exempt for the 2014 season. There will be no money-list push after the Tour Championship concludes, which has been the format since 2007 -- and an awkward one at that.
Now players will know their fate following the Wyndham Championship in August. They are either in the playoffs or they are not.
And if they're not ... well, welcome to controversy.
This is where the PGA Tour is blowing up one of its mainstays, the annual Q-School, where players advanced through various stages with the final brutal six-day, 108-hole qualifier determining 25 players who earn their PGA Tour cards for the next season.
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That system will no longer be in place. As a means to propping up the Nationwide Tour -- which will no longer have the insurance company as an underwriter following this year -- the tour is changing the system so that Q-School will only grant a player access to the developmental tour.
Instead, players who finished 126th to 200th on the PGA Tour money list, along with the top 75 players on the Nationwide Tour money list, will be seeded in a three-tournament series of events to run around the time of the FedEx Cup playoffs -- most likely during off weeks. The top 50 players will earn tour cards for the following season. Q-School, meanwhile, only feeds the Nationwide Tour. Those who don't make the PGA Tour will fall back to the Nationwide Tour.
Players such as Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and 2012 tour rookies John Huh (who won in Mexico) and Sang-Moon Bae (who just lost in a playoff at the Transitions Championship) made their way onto the tour through Q-School. Had the new plan been in place, they would have spent a year on the Nationwide Tour or its equivalent.
This is also likely to impact college players, who might opt to play in Europe instead. Same for international players, who might see the benefits of playing in Europe, improving their world ranking and qualifying for World Golf Championship events as a way of getting on tour -- although Finchem pointed out that a player coming out of college can earn through sponsor exemptions a spot among the top 200 on tour, thereby getting to the three-tournament Nationwide series.
The tour contends that Nationwide grads -- having played a full year under tour-like conditions with travel and numerous tournaments -- are better prepared for the PGA Tour than someone coming out of Q-School. Fair enough.
But there are plenty of tales of players having success on the PGA Tour right out of Q-School. Huh, for example, had to advance through all three stages. He got one of the final cards. Now he's a tour winner a few months later. That story couldn't happen otherwise.
"It's all tough," said PGA Tour veteran Davis Love, who is a member of the PGA Tour's policy board. "Change is hard. Like when we did the FedEx Cup, there was a lot of talk, why are we changing something that's working. But to get to where we need to be, I think it's all good."
What is not resolved is how the events in the fall will be treated. A few weeks after the Tour Championship concludes, the new season will begin, presumably with the Frys.com Open. In theory, the 2013 Frys.com tournament would be the first official event of the 2014 FedEx Cup season.
Still to be determined is if those fall events will receive full FedEx Cup points. If they don't, winners of those tournaments likely won't get Masters invites. And while those tournaments are mostly afterthoughts now, as they occur during football season and are mostly for players trying to keep their cards, what's the point of starting a new season with tournaments that are not deemed as important?
Also to be figured out is how to see the 75 players from the Nationwide Tour mixed in with the 75 who failed to keep their PGA Tour cards. Does the No. 1 player on the Nationwide money list not deserve a big break going into those three tournaments, given that he led the way for the full season?
"Human nature is, 'Why are we changing? If it ain't broke, why fix it?'" Finchem said. "But there is also the philosophy that if things are going pretty well, that's a time to get better. That is a philosophy we have embraced."
There are many concerns, many issues still to be resolved.
But for those perplexed by all of this, the plan in place before McCord came along in the early 1980s made life quite difficult for a tour player. Only the top 60 players were exempt each year. The rest were called "rabbits" and had to qualify on Mondays.
Earning your way through Q-School only gave you the right to try to Monday qualify. If you made a cut, you got to play the following week. If not, you were back to Monday qualifying.
"You were never playing to win, only to survive," McCord said.
The circumstances today are not nearly as dire. But clearly there is going to be more emphasis on finishing in the top 125. Stay there, and life is good. If not ... well, nobody is quite certain how this will all play out. Stay tuned.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
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