Q-School contested for final time under traditional format


LA QUINTA, Calif. – Be it a reprieve or a revolution, the 25 or so players who endure this week’s 108-hole root canal known as Q-School and earn PGA Tour status will also land a unique place in Trivial Pursuit history.

Question: Name the final Q-School class?

Answer: Those guys.

This week’s final stage at PGA West in California’s Coachella Valley is not the last Q-School, just the last one that matters. The official cause of death for the Fall Classic is either economic Darwinism or misguided management, depending on who you ask.

After 47 years of painful relevancy, Q-School will be replaced next season by a four-event Final Series that will combine the top 75 players off the Web.com Tour money list with Nos. 126-200 in Tour earnings in what, under different circumstances, might be considered a more manageable, streamlined version of the original.

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Since it was first played in 1965 Q-School is after all the embodiment of professional Kryptonite for play-for-pay types – the ultimate pass/fail endeavor where careers and dreams go die. The Fall Classic has left more road kill than a Texas byway, from Jaxon Brigman’s heartbreak at the 1999 finale (he signed for a 4 instead of a 3 and missed earning his Tour card by a shot) to Tim O’Neal’s closing-hole triple bogey a year later to miss by two strokes.

Yet for all of Q-School’s cool capriciousness this year’s final edition feels more like a wake then a celebration. Call it bittersweet nostalgia, call it a fear of the unknown, whatever the motivation the move to the new qualifying system hasn’t exactly been embraced by the rank-and-file.

“I don’t see what was wrong with (Q-School) in the first place,” said Greg Owen, who has endured four trips to the final stage. “There should be a way to access every tour and Q-School was ideal. You weren’t given anything. I had won in Europe the year before my first Q-School (2003) and I had to play all three stages. I had to go and earn it. I don’t think anyone complained about it.”

The move to the new system – which will make the Final Series the primary avenue to Tour membership and relegate Q-School to feeder-tournament status for the Web.com Tour – was predicated on the circuit’s transition to a split-calendar season and the need to land a new title sponsor for the secondary circuit.

Beginning next year the Tour season will end at the Tour Championship in September followed almost immediately by the start of the 2013-14 calendar, a scheduling crunch that made Q-School’s four stages unworkable and paving the way for the Finals Series, which will end in late September in time for the new campaign.

According to various sources the Tour also needed the extreme makeover to woo a new title sponsor for the secondary circuit, although in June during the announcement of a new multi-year deal with Web.com the company’s CEO David Brown suggested that wasn’t the case.

“We think it’s very beneficial, but that decision had already been made by the Tour when we engaged. So it was nice to have but not a fundamental part of our decision-making process,” Brown said at the time.

For players, however, it’s not the “talking points” that missed the mark so much as it is the logistical loss of an institution. Most agree the new qualifying system is, at least in theory, an upgrade over the current format.

Season-long performance, be it on the PGA or Web.com tours, is widely believed to be a better gage of potential success and the Finals Series structure, with the top 25 regular-season money winners off the Web.com circuit earning Tour cards and the final 25 cards decided via a four-event cumulative money list, has, at least initially, received a surprising amount of support.

“It’s going to be better this way because you’re going to get better players. You see how many guys get out here through Q-School, they don’t get into any tournaments, they don’t play well and they get shuffled back and they are done,” said Ken Duke, who has the rare perspective of having earned his card via Q-School and the Web.com Tour in his career. “This way there are going to be guys who get their card off the Web.com Tour that can play.”

What will be lost with the new system, however, is the Cinderella story.

Under the new system, for example, the feel-good story of this fall would probably never have happened. Charlie Beljan, who went from the emergency room on Friday to the winner’s circle on Sunday at Disney, earned his card last fall at PGA West, closing with a 68 to tie for 13th. Less than a year later he was making the rounds on the late-night talk show circuit and being celebrated for a gutsy performance that defied logic and doctor’s orders.

“At the first (Player Advisory Council) meeting of the year we did a loose vote, who wanted the changes? Nobody raised their hands,” said Patrick Sheehan, one of 16 PAC members who advised the Tour Policy Board on the changes. “Someone said during that meeting that they are taking the most unique sporting event in all of professional sports and you’re blowing it up.”

One of the most-commons concerns with the new system is that it doesn’t provide much wiggle room for established players who may have fallen on hard times either due to injury or swing change. Consider that if the new format was in place this season former PGA champion Shaun Micheel would be bound for the Web.com Tour next season having finished 208th on the Tour money list.

In short, the safety net that was Q-School no longer exists.

“The Cinderella story will go away largely because there won’t be that much attention focused on it,” said Stewart Cink, who earned his Tour card via the Web.com Tour and failed in his only attempt at final stage (1995). “But the question is what is the purpose of Q-School? Is it the great stories or identifying the best players?”

Yet for most observers it’s not the quantifiable cracks in the new system that are as concerning as it is the unforeseen holes. Tour officials say the new qualifying format will still afford opportunities to young, up-and-coming players fresh out of college.

With limited starts, Camp Ponte Vedra Beach contends, the Rickie Fowlers of the world can play their way into the top 200 on the Tour money list or top 75 on the Web.com circuit, earn a spot in the Finals Series and collect a Tour card. Some are not so sure.

“Does the No. 1 player in the NFL draft go to the ‘D League’ for a year?” asked Rocky Hambric, president of Hambric Sports Management and a veteran player manager. “That’s exactly what they are saying with the new system. The NBA doesn’t make it hard for their top draft picks, but in golf we celebrate mediocrity.”

Hambric points out that just seven players have played their way onto the Tour without having gone to Q-School via sponsor exemptions and Monday qualifying and suggests that the limited window between the NCAA Championship in early June and the FedEx Cup playoffs would afford top prospects no more than four or five starts on sponsor exemptions to secure their spot in the Finals Series.

“If Dustin Johnson (one of Hambric’s clients who earned his Tour card via Q-School) would have had to play the Web.com Tour for a year, if he would have had to play shorter courses and a different game, he may have gotten frustrated or disillusioned with the game,” Hambric said. “Would that have been good for the Tour?”

It is ironic that an institution that has generated the lion’s share of disillusioned Tour types in its long history is now being lamented for its Democratic simplicity and competitive integrity. For all the suffering the Fall Classic has caused this final Q-School, at least the final edition with direct access to the PGA Tour, will be a bittersweet ending for both players and the game.