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2012 a year of change on the PGA Tour

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BETHESDA, Md. – Whether by design or downturn, the PGA Tour finds itself in an unprecedented season of change, so much so that what follows will be of the same DNA but will bear little family resemblance to what came before.

Evolution, be it economic or otherwise, has arrived atop professional golf’s food chain by way of a cascading turn of events that began nearly two years ago when Nationwide Insurance, the longtime title sponsor of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.’s secondary circuit, informed the Tour that they wanted out of the umbrella sponsorship business.

Faced with a big-ticket item and an ailing economy, commissioner Tim Finchem began reinventing the wheel.

In order, the commish set out to overhaul the qualifying process for the PGA Tour to make the secondary circuit the primary avenue to membership, which in theory would make the tour more attractive to potential business partners.

At the same time, the PGA Tour adopted a split-calendar schedule, pulling the Fall Series and an assortment of international events into the FedEx Cup fold and ending decades of January-December tradition.

It was, by any measure, a hectic dance card and on Wednesday at Congressional your correspondent asked Finchem if he could compare the ever-changing Tour landscape to any other period during his tenure.

“The FedEx Cup was sort of an overlay, the World Golf Championships kind of changed the schedule, but this is a lot of change,” Finchem said. “Change is good if it’s done right.”

Whether all this tinkering is being done correctly is for history to decide. Similarly, there’s also the issue of change for the sake of change that is concerning given the current context.

It was curious that on Wednesday when Finchem and David Brown – the CEO and president of Web.com, which signed a 10-year umbrella sponsorship of the secondary circuit this week – were asked how instrumental the new qualifying system was in completing the deal both dismissed the move as a deal-maker.

“It’s very beneficial, but that decision had already been made by the Tour when we engaged,” said Brown, a last-minute suitor in the process who began talking with the Tour about a month ago. “It was nice to have but not a fundamental part of our decision-making process.”

Which leaves one to wonder why change at all, but that’s a column for another day. And at this juncture in the proceedings change seems inevitable. At what pace and cost, however, remains to be seen.

On Monday, the Tour’s Policy Board balked at the three versions of the Web.com Tour/Q-School proposal, which will include the top 75 players from the secondary circuit money list and Nos. 126-200 in PGA Tour earnings playing a three-event series with the top 50 finishers earning Tour cards for the 2013-14 season.

“I was PAC chairman when they hired Tim, so I would say that was as impactful for the Tour as anything we have ever done,” said Davis Love III, who has served four terms as a player director on the Policy Board. “(But) this change has been stressful for the player directors, to say the least.

“We’ve put more time and effort and worry into this than anything we’ve ever done. We just don’t want to go in the wrong direction.”

There is a sense, among all involved, that the new qualifying system needs to be right the first time. Unlike the FedEx Cup, which adjusted its format the first few seasons, there is no room for trial and error.

It’s a reality that Finchem seemed to concede on Wednesday when asked if he expected a consensus among PGA and Web.com tour players on the new plan.

“All the different models are all kind of close,” Finchem said. “I wouldn’t say they are hugely different, and the player directors wanted to make sure the PAC had one more chance to look at them which should happen in the next few weeks. Hopefully bring it to a conclusion.”

It is the final piece of a complicated puzzle, the final shift in what promises to be a tectonic slide at the game’s highest levels.

“One more (Policy Board) meeting,” sighed Love, referring to his final turn as a player director later this year at the McGladrey Classic. “This is going to be big.”

For a sport that has kept time with calendars, not clocks, the extreme makeover is not just big, it’s monumental.