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New Q-School plans starting to take shape

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Big dreams and a little luck can go a long way in golf, though this much should be clear about the 160 players who finished Q-School, and the 27 players who walked away with a full-time job on the PGA Tour:

They all believed they were good enough to compete at the highest level.

That part shouldn’t change, even as the Tour moves closer to revamping Q-School as we’ve come to know it for nearly 50 years.

If everything goes according to schedule, next December will be the last time that Q-School will earn anyone a ticket straight to the PGA Tour.

The final pieces are starting to come together in a plan that would merge the top 75 players from the Nationwide Tour with the 75 players from the PGA Tour who failed to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs. They would play a three-tournament series, and the top 50 would earn PGA Tour cards. The rest could go back to Q-School to try to earn status on the Nationwide Tour.

It’s a revolutionary plan, and not very popular among traditionalists.

While it strengthens the Nationwide Tour, and tries to ensure that only the best players reach the big leagues, the PGA Tour is eliminating the dreamers who have provided so much charm to the most grueling week in golf at Q-School.

This week alone, the 27 winners at Q-School included a guy who played his last five holes in 5 under par to earn his PGA Tour card, and a 38-year-old who, only a few years ago, was working on a farm in North Carolina to pay the bills. There’s always someone who endured a family tragedy or a health scare, who was driving a delivery truck or working in a pizza restaurant to pay for a chance to play golf for a living. Only the names change. Those stories are as cool now as they were when Q-School began in 1965.

And that’s what makes Steve Stricker, who is on the PGA Tour policy board, pause when considering the change.

“I would like to see them keep a few more spots – maybe 10 spots or something like that,” Stricker said. “I still think it would be nice if somebody had the opportunity to get a quick turn on Tour. I believe, though, it’s going to be better for a better player. It’s going to bring out talent over a longer period of time. If I was a good player, I would love to have the whole year to prove myself for 50 spots.”

While the details are still being discussed, the plan is starting to take shape.

Tour officials believe they have a solution for the amateurs (mostly college players) who no longer have a chance to earn their card at Q-School, like Rickie Fowler last year and Dustin Johnson in 2007. And it would keep these rising stars from having to skip the U.S. Amateur or Walker Cup.

One idea is to apply whatever money they earn as amateurs to the money list, even though they still don’t get paid. Call it fake money.

UCLA sophomore Patrick Cantlay, for example, would have earned $343,088 in four PGA Tour events he played this summer. That money would have put him around No. 155 on the money list, meaning he would qualify for the three-tournament series that awards 50 Tour cards. That would allow amateurs to accept exemptions at any time of the year, such as Bay Hill, which offers a spot to the U.S. Amateur champion.

If not, the Tour fears college players would turn pro after the NCAA championship in late spring.

As for the three-tournament series, the last thing the Tour wants is another points system like the FedEx Cup. The idea getting most of the attention is to base it off Nationwide Tour earnings.

The top 25 from the Nationwide Tour money list – players who previously would have automatically earned PGA Tour cards – would be seeded No. 1 through No. 25. The next seed would be shared by No. 26 on the Nationwide money list and No. 126 on the PGA Tour money list. The PGA Tour player would be assigned the same money as his counterpart from the Nationwide Tour.

Some of the early calculations have shown that top 25 would be virtually assured of finishing among the top 50 to earn their cards; and that anyone winning one of those three tournaments also would be a lock to earn a card.

The Tour wants to start this in the fall of 2013. After that three-tournament series ends, the new season would start with what used to be the Fall Series.

Jim Furyk goes on the policy board next year. What concerns him is that the players who earn cards out of Q-School in 2012 will have only eight months to try to get into the FedEx Cup playoffs and keep their cards; they no longer would have the Fall Series to help them.

“I’m torn with the proposals out there,” Furyk said. “Because there are going to be situations – injuries, different things – that happen that don’t give you an opportunity to get back on Tour. I’m worried about blending the Nationwide and the regular Tour together. The first year we do this, the rookies and first-timers get an extremely short season.

“I know the Tour has an idea what they want to accomplish, but I don’t think they have all the details yet,” he said. “And I’m a details guy.”

The overhaul seems to be inevitable, though. Next year is likely to be the last that players with big dreams can have a great week or a great finish, and the reward will be a job on the PGA Tour.

What won’t change is that the best players will find a way.