Earning PGA TOUR Card Only Half the Battle
Any other year, John Merrick might have taken off the last month to celebrate his season. He won a Nationwide Tour event as a rookie and finished 21st on the money list to earn a promotion to the big leagues. Instead, he kept his game sharp and headed off to Q-school, one of the most grueling weeks in golf.
The idea was to improve his position so he could get into more tournaments at the start of next year.
'It was an easy decision,' Merrick said Monday evening after he tied for fourth.
The tough part is figuring out what the new FedExCup will mean for players like Merrick and 60 other newcomers who earned their cards either through Q-school or through the Nationwide Tour money list, and now wonder how many chances they will get to tee it up.
The pecking order for filling out fields in PGA TOUR events starts with major champions over the last five years and recent winners of big events like the Tour Championship and World Golf Championships. Then it goes to PGA TOUR winners over the last two years, followed by players who take one-time exemptions for career money.
Next up are the players who finished in the top 125 on the money list. Throw in a handful of guys who were granted medical exemptions, the leading money winner from the Nationwide Tour, and then the newcomers finally get their shot.
And there's a pecking order for them, too.
First in line is the winner of Q-school, followed by the No. 2 player from the Nationwide Tour money list. The spots alternate between the two groups the rest of the way down.
And that's why Merrick wisely decided to go back to work when his season was over. He would have been the 40th player on the list of newcomers. Instead, he will be somewhere around No. 10.
That could be the difference between playing in the Sony Open or waiting a month to get his first start. It could be the difference between playing as many as five times on the West Coast or playing twice.
'I was thinking I would only get in two tournaments,' Merrick said. 'The whole system is new to me. I was expecting more than two, but that was the reason I went to Q-school. My swing coach, a few players, my manager, they all said it couldn't hurt. I have no idea where I'll be, but I know I bettered my position.'
What will it mean for the rest of the newcomers?
With 30 days before the 'new era in golf' begins, not even the PGA TOUR brass can say.
The FedExCup is a points race that starts with the Mercedes-Benz Championship and ends a week after the PGA Championship. The top 144 players will head into the 'playoffs' portion of the schedule, and the winner gets $10 million.
There are only 36 tournaments before the playoffs. If more top players are competing against each other -- and that's the idea behind this revamped schedule -- the new guys inevitably will be squeezed out.
'If you look at the last eight or nine years, we've had a steady increase in the number of opportunities for our Q-school and Nationwide players,' said Henry Hughes, chief of operations for the PGA TOUR. 'That could change. We just don't know what the FedExCup events are going to do. We can look at the last eight or 10 years and say, 'Here's the trend.' If we weren't doing the FedExCup, we could give a good expectation level. Now ... we have some unknowns.'
Ten years ago, 58 players earned their cards through Q-school or the Nike Tour. They averaged 26.4 starts with 45 tournaments on the schedule. Five years ago, 52 new card members averaged 27.6 starts with 49 events on the schedule.
Next year, there will be 61 newcomers.
And while 47 tournaments are on the schedule, only 36 events determine who qualifies for the big prize.
Before you do the math, consider how many of those 36 events offer a realistic chance for newcomers. For starters, throw out the winners-only Mercedes-Benz Championship. Only three out of 53 players from the Q-School/Nationwide batch made it to The Players Championship last year. None received a Masters invitation. They will have to qualify for the U.S. Open and British Open, and play great to get into the PGA Championship, WGCs or the three limited-field invitationals.
That leaves 24 'regular' tournaments for those 61 players, and that depends on what the top players do. Maybe they will pace themselves for the end of the year, when they might have to play six times in seven weeks. But if they play more to boost their points in the FedExCup, that could mean even fewer opportunities for the newcomers.
Then again, Q-school and Nationwide grads have never had it easy. The message hasn't changed -- 'play hard' -- but it's louder.
'They have to play at a higher level every year, yet good play is always rewarded,' Hughes said. 'If you have the ability, our regulations and guidelines will not keep you from reaching that level.'
Ultimately, it starts with a chance.
That's the conclusion Cameron Beckman came to Monday night after tying for fourth at Q-school. A former PGA TOUR winner, he spent last year playing for chump change on the Nationwide Tour, and he was determined to get back to the big leagues.
When will he get to play next year? How many starts can he expect?
Those are details to be sorted out later.
'I know one thing for sure,' Beckman said. 'We're playing for a lot of cake, aren't we? I wanted to get in on that.'
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Kelly, Sauers co-lead in Hawaii; Monty, Couples in mix
KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii - Fresh off a solid performance on Oahu, Jerry Kelly shot an 8-under 64 on the Big Island on Thursday to share the first-round lead at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.
The 51-year-old Kelly, who tied for 14th at the PGA Tour's Sony Open last week in Honolulu, birdied five of his final seven holes to shoot 30 on the back nine at Hualalai. He won twice last season, his first on the over-50 tour.
Gene Sauers also shot 64, going bogey-free amid calm conditions. Thirty-two of the 44 players broke par in the limited-field event, which includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.
Rocco Mediate and Colin Montgomerie were one shot back, and Fred Couples, Kevin Sutherland and Kirk Triplett were another shot behind.
Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was in the middle of the pack after a 69.
Rahm (62) fires career low round
The scores were predictably low during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge, where the top-ranked player in the field currently sits atop the standings. Here's how things look after the first day in Palm Springs as Jon Rahm is out to an early advantage:
Leaderboard: Jon Rahm (-10), Austin Cook (-9), Andrew Landry (-9), Jason Kokrak (-9), Brandon Harkins (-8), Martin Piller (-8), Aaron Wise (-8), Beau Hossler (-8)
What it means: Rahm is coming off a runner-up finish two weeks ago at Kapalua, and he picked up right where he left off with a 10-under 62 at La Quinta Country Club. It marked his lowest career round on the PGA Tour, and it gave him a one-shot lead heading to the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Cook is the only player within two shots of Rahm who has won already on Tour.
Round of the day: Rahm got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under, and he made it around La Quinta without dropping a shot. The 62 bettered his previous career low on Tour by two shots and it included an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole to go along with eight birdies.
Best of the rest: Cook was a winner earlier this season at the RSM Classic, and he's now in the mix for trophy No. 2 following a 9-under 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Like Rahm, he opened with a seven-hole stretch at 6 under and turned in a scorecard without a bogey. He'll now head to the more difficult Stadium Course for his second round.
Biggest disappointment: Patrick Reed blitzed the three-course rotation in Palm Springs en route to his first career Tour title back in 2014, but he's unlikely to repeat that feat after opening with a 2-over 74 on the Nicklaus Tournament course. Reed made only one birdie against three bogeys and was one of only 32 players in the 156-man field who failed to break par in the opening round.
Main storyline heading into Friday: Rahm deserves the spotlight, as he entered the week as one of the event's headliners and did nothing to lose that billing in the opening round. But the pack of contenders is sure to keep pace, while players like Phil Mickelson (-2) will look to put up a low score in order to build some momentum heading into the weekend.
Shot of the day: Wesley Bryan's 7-under 65 on the Nicklaus Tournament course was helped in large part by an eagle on the par-4 10th, where he holed a 54-degree wedge from 112 yards away. Bryan went on to birdie the next hole amid a five-hole stretch of 5 under play.
Quote of the day: "Shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for." - Rahm
Recent winner Cook contending at CareerBuilder
Patton Kizzire is currently the only two-time PGA Tour winner this season, but Austin Cook hopes to join him this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge.
Cook won for the first time in November at the RSM Classic, a victory that catapaulted him from the Web.com Tour graduate category into an entirely new echelon. Cook notched a pair of top-25 finishes over the last two weeks in Hawaii, and he's again in the mix after an opening 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course left him one shot behind Jon Rahm.
"Today was great," Cook told reporters. "The conditions were perfect, but I always loved desert golf and I was just hitting the ball well and seeing good lines on the greens and hitting good putts."
Cook got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole. He briefly entertained the notion of a sub-60 round after birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before closing with six pars and a birdie.
Cook was a relative unknown before his victory at Sea Island earlier this season, but now with the flexibility and confidence afforded by a win he hopes to build on his burgeoning momentum this week in California.
"That was a big, proud moment for myself, knowing that I can finish a tournament," Cook said. "I think it was one of those things that I've proven to myself that now I can do it, and it just meant the world to me."
Photo: Fleetwood's phone cover is picture of Bjorn
There's phone covers and then there are Phone Covers.
Paul Casey has himself a Phone Cover, showing off the protective case that features a picture of his wife at last year's U.S. Open.
Now, it appears, Tommy Fleetwood has joined the movement.
Fleetwood, last year's season-long Race to Dubai winner, has a phone cover with a picture of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on it. And not even a current Thomas Bjorn. This is a young Bjorn. A hair-having Bjorn.
The 26-year-old is a virtual lock for this year's European Ryder Cup team, but just in case, he's carrying around a phone with a picture of the team captain attached to the back of it.