Qualifying process change comes down to money

By John FeinsteinJuly 11, 2012, 6:45 pm

It all makes sense – sort of. If you know the history.

The PGA Tour needed to find a way to make the Nationwide Tour more attractive to a potential umbrella sponsor because Nationwide was going away at the end of 2012. As much fun as the Nationwide is to watch for true golf geeks, it wasn’t thought to bring enough bang for the buck for corporate America.

Thus was born what will be known – with apologies to David Stern and the NBA – as the Finals: a three tournament fall series that will decide 25 spots on the PGA Tour. It will not decide 50 spots as has been reported by some because the top 25 players on what is now the Web.com Tour will already have spots locked up when the Finals begin. It will actually decide 25 spots on the PGA Tour. The only thing at stake for the Web.com 25 will be their card number, which, especially early in the season, is important because it plays a role in how often you get to play.

Note the use of the word “season,” as opposed to “year,” because the PGA Tour calendar will no longer have anything to do with the actual calendar. You can forget celebrating New Year’s by noting that the new golf season is upon you. October will be the new January in golf: once the Finals and the FedEx Cup are over, there will a brief break and then the “New Year,” will begin with what was once the Fall Series.

Confused? What’s more confusing is the Tour’s explanation as to why it is undergoing this facelift. Both Commissioner Tim Finchem and Web.com Tour president Bill Calfee went on at length about the need to improve access to the Tour for players on the Web.com Tour; that there should be more emphasis put on season-long performance as opposed to the old tradition of surviving the grind of Q-School.

At best, all of that is a little bit true. There was really nothing terribly wrong with a system that allowed 25 players to make it to the Tour through season-long performance on what was the Nationwide Tour. There was also nothing wrong with keeping the “Field of Dreams,” aspect of the system alive through Q-School. Was it as fair or complete a test as a season-long competition? Probably not, but it was certainly a severe test of nerves and guts and allowed for stories like the one John Huh has written this season – going from nowhere in the golf pantheon to being a PGA Tour winner after surviving three stages (14 rounds of pressure-packed golf) of Q-School.

The Tour argues that Huh is an exception, not the norm. Which is exactly the point: John Daly winning the PGA Championship as the ninth alternate in 1991 wasn’t the norm either and it was thrilling. Tiger Woods winning the Masters by 12 shots in 1997 and the U.S. Open by 15 in 2000 were not the norm and they were extraordinary. It is the exceptions that make sports – not the norm. The new system eliminates the possibility of John Huh or anyone else coming from nowhere to stardom in a matter of months.

Why then, fix what isn’t really broken? It’s a little bit like buying a new house because the dining room needs painting.

The problem wasn’t the dining room – or access to the Tour – it was money. The Tour needed a corporate sponsor to step up with a heavy dollar commitment to the Nationwide Tour. Without an umbrella sponsor, the Triple-A tour, which has been such a boom to the game in its 23 years, almost certainly would have lost events next year and might have seen purse sizes go in the wrong direction too. That tour had to be made more attractive to a sponsor and that’s why the Finals were created.

It worked.

The other issue was also sponsor-related. The title sponsors of the Fall Series were not at all happy with the fields they were getting since most of the stars went home – or overseas to play for huge appearance fees – once the FedEx Cup was over. Tiger Woods’ appearance at the Frys.com Open last October was a blip, not a trend.

So, how can fields be improved? Make those tournaments part of the FedEx Cup. The schedule can’t be extended to end in November because both Woods and Phil Mickelson made it clear several years ago they wouldn’t show up for a Tour Championship played late in the year.

So, if the fall events can’t end the season what was a Tour to do? BEGIN the season with them. This won’t mean tournaments will get a lot more of Woods and Mickelson but they will get more of the game’s other stars and, as players get used to the new schedule, more of them will play in the fall tournaments.

So, what did the Tour REALLY do with these changes? It got itself a new sponsor (Web.com) and made a handful of its current title sponsors happy. That’s the reason for these changes, not access to the Tour.

Losing Q-School as a direct route to the PGA Tour is not good for golf or those who play golf. As intense as the six days of the finals are, they are great theater and every player who has ever been part of Q-School (which is nearly everyone) has memories of their Q-School experiences. That won’t be the same anymore because Q-School will now be an intermediate step; an entryway only to the Web.com Tour, which most players see only as a place they want to visit, not remain.

Q-School was about romance, filled with stories of dreams fulfilled and dreams shattered; of young players coming into their own and older ones finding their way back to the Tour after their careers had cratered. Steve Stricker went back to Q-School in 2005; a year later he re-started his career and became a star in his 40s.

The Tour can talk about trying to improve access to the Tour with the new system. In truth, it hasn’t changed that much. There will be 150 players in the Finals: 25 will have Tour spots locked up, leaving 125 to play 12 rounds for 25 spots. Among those, 50 (finishers 151 to 200 on the PGA Tour money list) would have had to play 10 rounds (second stage of Q-School and Q-School finals) to get back to the Tour. Fifteen more (players 61 to 75 on the Web.com list) would also have gone back to second stage under the old system. That means more than half the field will be playing two fewer rounds than if the old Q-School system still existed. And any access to the Tour for those who began the year with no status (like John Huh in 2011) and anyone who finishes out of the top 200 on the PGA Tour money list or the top 75 on the Web.com list will be gone.

That doesn’t mean the Tour was wrong to do what it did. It had to do what it did because, the bottom line on the Tour, like any business, is the bottom line.

So let’s mourn the passing of what Q-School was and what it meant to the sport, then let’s move on. Regardless of what the Tour’s mouthpieces say, this was about the money and keeping sponsors happy. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Let’s just call a dollar sign a dollar sign when we know that’s what it is.

Photo by Enrique Berardi/LAAC

Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

"The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).

Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship

Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Web.com Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

“Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Web.com Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.