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.'
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