Road to PGA Tour takes a detour
ORLANDO, Fla. -- At the 2011 PGA Tour Q-school in Palm Springs, Calif., Harris English finished in a tie for 13th to earn his tour card. Earlier that year as an amateur, the lanky 22-year-old former University of Georgia star won the Nationwide's Children's Hospital Invitational in Columbus, Ohio. Once he turned pro after playing in the Walker Cup in September, he had a second- and a third-place finish on the Nationwide Tour.
So it wasn't a surprise that he was in contention through three rounds at this year's Honda Classic before a 77 on Sunday derailed his chances of winning and isn't a surprise that he has made five of six cuts this season. He's a bona fide PGA Tour player.
However, under the proposed changes to the qualification process to play on the PGA Tour that were announced Tuesday, English most likely would be playing this week at the Chitimacha Louisiana Open on the Nationwide Tour instead of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
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Under the new proposal, the Thomasville, Ga., native might have skipped a chance at competing in the prestigious Walker Cup and turned pro much sooner. The move would have given him a chance of earning enough money to make the field at the season's final three Nationwide Tour events, which would include the top 75 players on the Nationwide's money list and regular tour players ranked from 126 to 200 on the money list. Those players would compete for 50 PGA Tour cards, and Q-school graduates would get Nationwide Tour cards.
On Wednesday morning in the Bay Hill practice area, English took a sigh of relief that he has narrowly missed the proposed changes that are slated to begin in October 2013.
"The changes are definitely going to make it harder for the college guys to come out and play the PGA Tour," he said. "I wouldn't be out here under the new system. I guess for those college guys, knowing that they aren't going to be on the PGA Tour, it will give them a chance to figure some stuff out for at least a year, and, when they come on tour, they will be a little bit stronger player.
"I can understand what Tim Finchem is doing. Obviously, he's thinking toward the future. He wants to make the Nationwide Tour better. It's going to be interesting to see how that whole first year plays out."
Although it's true that graduates to the PGA Tour off the Nationwide Tour have done a better job percentagewise at keeping their cards than guys out of Q-school, the proposed changes are probably unfair to young players with tour-ready games who might feel as if their growth is stunted by a year in the minor leagues.
"I was playing well, and, if you're playing well, you definitely want the opportunity to play against the best players in the world," English said. "I was always working up toward Q-school. Would it have hurt Rickie Fowler, a Q-school graduate, to go on the Nationwide Tour for a year? Who knows?"
English was a year old when Rocco Mediate won the 1991 Doral-Ryder Open. After 27 years on the PGA Tour, 49-year-old Mediate has seen lots of changes through the years.
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"Everything changes," Mediate said as he hit wedges around the practice green at Bay Hill. "It's one thing that former tour commissioner Deane Beman taught us back when I was a kid out here in 1986. He would say: 'Boys, all I can tell you to get rid of all your problems is play better. That's all you have to do. If you find yourself asking for something, that means you need to play better.'"
Mediate, who is in the last year of a two-year exemption for winning the 2010 Frys.com Open, is a fan of Q-school, and he sympathizes with the players like English. But he's flat-out Darwinian when it comes to survival on the PGA Tour.
"There are 46 opportunities out here to play well," said the six-time PGA Tour winner. "I have been at a high level, a normal level, a low level and a beginner level, but I have never wavered what I think. Play better. If a good college player can't come straight out here, then he needs to figure out how to get it done. If you play good out here, they give you stuff. They hand it to you on a platform."
Rod Pampling, 42, who earned his regular tour card through the Nationwide Tour in 2001, likes the present format that rewards consistent, yearlong play on the Nationwide Tour.
"I think that there should be maybe 10 Nationwide Tour players who get their card without having to play those three events in the fall."
On Tuesday, Finchem talked mostly about what's good for the future of the tour, but, on a basic level, his decisions will have a major impact on the livelihoods of hundreds of players who are independent contractors.
"You can understand the changes from the tour's perspective, but it gets more difficult when you look at it from the player's viewpoint," Pampling said. "It's a guy's job now. It's not just dishing out huge amounts of money to guys who play well."
The jobs of the men and women who manage young players like English also will get more difficult with the proposed changes.
"The changes beg the question of when do you turn pro," said Clarke Jones, a senior vice president at IMG. "Some kids might turn pro in January to have more time to get to the top 125 by October. Traditionally, guys have turned pro after the NCAA. It's going to make the decision process harder for the top-ranked amateur. Do they want to give up some of their college time? What's the kid's objective?"
English's objective was to play on the PGA Tour, and he got there on his first try out of college. He's living his dream -- now.
After missing his first PGA Tour cut this past week at the Transitions Championship, he's playing the next two weeks with Augusta on his mind. It might be a long shot for him to win here on his first trip to Bay Hill, but he's not taking for granted the opportunity to compete because, in a few years, the next hotshot out of Georgia most likely won't have a chance to shake hands with Arnold Palmer coming off the 18th hole until he has paid some dues in southern Louisiana or some other outpost on the Nationwide Tour.
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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