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Questions still abound about new playing privileges

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The news that emerged from last week’s Player Advisory Council meeting on Hilton Head Island, S.C., was that the current fall series events that will join the FedEx Cup fold in 2013 likely will be awarded full points.

That the circuit had no update on the new Nationwide Tour/Q-School qualifying system was not news, at least not to anyone with at least a passing interest in the dramatic makeover.

When the Tour announced in March its plan to nip/tuck the current competitive calendar and the decades-long process of earning playing privileges there was no shortage of concern or commentary, particularly for the latter.

Why, for example, would the Tour – which preached for decades that the Nationwide Tour’s yearlong race was a better judge of long-term ability over the capriciousness of a three-week Q-School – seemingly reverse course and revert back to a three-week sprint?

Even more concerning was how the Tour would devise a system that would adequately pair the top 75 players off the current Nationwide Tour money list with Nos. 126 to 200 in PGA Tour earnings, which would be the basis of the circuit’s three-event finals series which will become the primary avenue to Tour membership in 2013?

“There is no comparison between No. 26 (in Nationwide Tour earnings) to No. 126 (in Tour earnings),” reasoned one Tour type, who requested anonymity.

“The only comparison is that they don’t have a PGA Tour card. But at least 126 (currently) has conditional status. In their mind that makes them a better player. They spent all year playing against tougher competition. How can you compare apples to oranges?”

Heavy stuff. By comparison awarding the Frys.com Open full FedEx Cup points must have felt like low-hanging fruit to the 16-man PAC.

“(Seeding) seems to be the $64 million question and I don’t know the answer to that,” said Bill Calfee, president of the Nationwide Tour. “We looked at several different models and the PAC rejected a few different concepts. One of the thoughts was to use the Nationwide Tour money list and just deciding where the players were comfortable in seeding players into that money list (For example, granting No. 126 in Tour earnings with the amount No. 26 on the Nationwide Tour made and so on).”

According to Calfee the PAC largely rejected the idea of creating a FedEx Cup-type points system for the finals series as well as a “jump ball” model that would feature every player starting the series at zero.

That, Calfee explained, would ignore the season-long body of work of the top Nationwide Tour players. But how many secondary circuit players should be assured Tour cards also remains a topic of much debate.

“The players do feel there will be some seeding, but it’s a question of whether we use money or points. (Do we) give the top 10 or 15 or 20 Nationwide Tour players a head start based on their season?” Calfee said. “I think we’re getting close to coming up with a solution.”

The Tour may be close to a solution, but not a consensus. Nor does such an accord seem likely considering that a player’s point of view on finals series seeding is normally based on where they are in their careers.

Players on the PGA Tour contend that playing against the world’s top competition every week is more grueling than a Nationwide Tour schedule, while top money winners on the secondary circuit would argue that they’ve proven themselves worthy of elevated status.

For Calfee, a former Tour player who forged his career the traditional way through Q-School but has become an advocate of the secondary circuit as the Nationwide Tour chief, it’s a double-edged sword.

“If I wear my Nationwide Tour hat I’d like to see No. 25 (in earnings) safe,” said Calfee, echoing a theme that would guarantee Nos. 1-25 off the Nationwide Tour money list entering the finals series a Tour card. “If I wear a PGA Tour hat I’d have a different number. There should be some seeding and I think players agree with that.”

Ultimately it will be the Tour Policy Board that will decide the numbers game, likely when they meet in June at the AT&T National. But the pressure is mounting considering that the new system will begin in 2013 and there is a growing undercurrent among player directors and Tour officials to get this right the first time.

A misstep, like the variety that haunted the FedEx Cup points process the first few years, could be devastating to potential pros and possibly the Tour.

There are already concerns in some circles that the new system could have the unintended consequence of driving young American players away from the PGA Tour and toward the European circuit.

When asked how he would advise an up-and-coming college underclassman – a player like super UCLA sophomore Patrick Cantlay – to proceed given the realities of the new system one longtime player manager offered a chilling glimpse into what the developmental process may look like in coming years.

“I would definitely go to (Q-School) this year. If I didn't make it, I would go back to school until I graduated, then try to get a card in Europe through the Challenge Tour, build my world ranking and walk onto the PGA Tour without ever going to Tour School or playing the (Nationwide Tour),” he said. “I hope this plan helps the (Nationwide Tour) as much as it will help Europe and hurt college golf.”

Calfee said the Tour has considered the “European” option but officials are “comfortable we won’t be pushing players toward Europe.”

Given the complexities and competing interests of the issue it’s understandable why the Tour is slow-playing the process. There will be news, just don’t expect it anytime soon.