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Qualifying process change comes down to money

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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.

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