The last stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament used to be
so pressure-packed and all-important that grip-it-and-rip-it
philosopher John Daly called it golf's fifth major. Only a decade
ago, the Q school was pretty much the only road to the PGA Tour.
That has changed. Nowadays, Q school is no longer a scary
man-eating monster. It's more civilized. Think of Frankenstein,
minus the neck bolt, in an Armani suit.
Q school, won this year by Sweden's Mathias Gronberg, a four-time
winner on the European tour, remains the most direct route to the
riches of the PGA Tour, but it's not the all-or-nothing affair it
once was. Last week the 170 players who qualified for the
school's third and final stage teed it up at Orange County
National Golf Center and Lodge, outside Orlando, and the top 30
finishers and ties won tickets to the big Tour, while the next 50
were exempted onto the Nationwide tour, pro golf's equivalent of
Triple A baseball. But everyone who competed at Orange County
National at least got a lovely parting gift--conditional status
on the Nationwide tour. Says long-hitting Scott Hend of
Australia, who played on the Canadian tour last summer, "I simply
wanted to get to the Nationwide tour, to be honest." He surprised
himself by finishing 11 shots behind Gronberg in 21st place to
jump directly to the PGA Tour.
Minor league golf has come a long way since 1990, when the
Nationwide's low-budget predecessor, the Ben Hogan tour, was
launched. The leading money winner on the 2003 Nationwide tour
was Zach Johnson. He made $494,882, while the rest of the top 20
finishers--all of whom were awarded Tour cards--won more than
$175,000 each. Beat that: decent money and on-the-job training
against tough competition in a PGA Tour-type atmosphere.
The real Frankenstein now is the second stage of Q school. If
you're young and fail to advance, as Bryce Molder, a four-time
All-America at Georgia Tech, did last month, you'll wind up in
Canada, like Hend, or in Asia, South America or on some regional
tour in the U.S. If you're a Tour veteran and bomb out in the
second stage, you'll probably be reduced to begging for sponsor's
exemptions on the big Tour.
Q school may not be as scary as it once was, but the odds of
making it all the way from there to the PGA Tour keep getting
longer. In 1990 the top 50 and ties earned Tour cards while the
top five on the Hogan money list advanced. Since then the number
of cards allotted to Q school grads has steadily gone down while
the number of Nationwide slots has gone up. This year there were
five fewer spots for Q schoolers than last year and five more for
Nationwide players. A 50-50 split, with 25 berths going to each
group, is right around the corner, and many players think even
that split is not going far enough.
"I wish they'd give all 50 spots to the Nationwide tour," says
Rich Massey, a Canadian tour player from Harrington Park, N.J.,
who finished 121st last week at Orange County National. "A player
should be judged on an entire season rather than on a crapshoot
like Q school."
The numbers say that Nationwide pros are more Tour-ready than Q
school survivors. Over the last seven years 43% of the Nationwide
grads remained exempt on the PGA Tour after their rookie seasons
compared with only 23% of the Q schoolers.
Daniel Chopra, a 29-year-old from Sweden, tried both routes. He
bogeyed four of the last seven holes in the final Nationwide
event of the season to miss the top 20 on the final money list by
a gut-wrenching $1,164. Last week he easily got his card by
finishing sixth at Q school. "It's not a week of hell," Chopra
said of his six rounds at Orange County National. "It's certainly
a long week, but it's not as bad as people make it out."
--Gary Van Sickle
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG (GRONBERG) HELLO, PGA TOUR A European tour veteran from Sweden, Gronberg, 33, was under par in all six rounds.
COLOR PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES (TROPHIES)
B/W PHOTO: HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION/CORBIS (VARDON)
B/W PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES (SOLDIER)
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT AUDETTE/AP (SINGH)
COLOR PHOTO: ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES (SORENSTAM)
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER (WOODS)
Michelle Wie will get plenty of attention next month when she
tees it up in the PGA Tour's Sony Open in her home state of
Hawaii, but women playing in men's events is a fad that will soon
THE NEW MATH
Tiger Woods voted the PGA Tour Player of the Year
(FIVE WINS + VARDON TROPHY) - MAJOR x VIJAY VS. ANNIKA =
[TIGER WOODS VOTED THE PGA TOUR PLAYER OF THE YEAR]