2001: Perspective - ‘Howell Rule’ should be just a start

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The PGA Tour, that exclusive private club, last week chiseled open a crack in its closed door. That is welcomed news for the growing number of talented, young outsiders who can play better than hangers-on.

The Tour, in effect, acknowledged it has had an access problem. The new so-called Charles Howell III Rule puts up-and-comers on similar footing with established nonmembers from abroad who already could play in a dozen Tour events.

The measure should merely be a start in hacksawing the padlock and altering eligibility rules that should have one master: current performance. Those who shoot the lowest scores today should play tomorrow. Nostalgia, with which the exclusionary sport of golf is obsessed, is fine until it discriminates against merit.

For the minute, applaud a small progressive act. That would be the Tour’s Sept. 5 passage allowing nonmembers to play in as many as 12 Tour events a year via sponsor exemptions and top-10 finishes instead of the current seven. That means outsiders potentially have five more starts in which to show they belong.

Howell’s success in 2000-01 was the catalyst. The change will benefit other wunderkind, perhaps Bryce Molder and Luke Donald, who might have one hangnail day and don’t get through that national fall lottery known as the pricey, three-stage Q-School.

Curiously, however, the Tour preliminarily approved an age limit of 18 for members. That means if new professional Ty Tryon, 17, gets through Q-School, he would not become a member until he turns 18 in June.

That would appear to be age discrimination. There’s no high age restriction. In a time athletes are getting better younger, who are we to arbitrarily set a timetable on a prodigy’s genius, to tell Mozart when his brilliance is fit for public view? Weren’t Britney Spears and boyfriend Justin Timberlake stars well before 18?

I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, but if Tryon earned his Tour card and were kept from playing, the Tour might be on some quaking legal ground. Its batting average in court already is worse than an inept-hitting former pitcher Bob Buhl’s. If Tyron were denied access, the Tour’s new nightmare could be a call beginning something like, “Hi, this is Leonard Decof, lawyer for . . .” Decof, of course, is to the Tour what Johnnie Cochran is to the LAPD.

Only performance should exclude. Scores. Not age or politics.

Access problems especially plague the Tour’s so-called developmental Buy.com satellite, whose eligibility rules favor hangers-on moreso than tomorrow’s stars. Under the headline “The Outsiders,” that point was made May 5 in Golfweek. The story told of fields more aged on the Buy.com than the PGA Tour. The conclusion was that pro golf is eating its young to save its old, that current deed should rate higher than a dusty résumé.

The response was overwhelming, by far more than this writer has ever received. The reaction was about 15-1 in favor. Among others, several Buy.com insiders expressed support. Buy.com Tour VP Bill Calfee sent in an objection that included this laughable sentence: “The best players play, regardless of age.” Tour veteran Larry Rinker also was among the few dissenters, pledging to match 12 Buy.com has-beens against 12 of my young studs. But this week Rinker is caddying in the Tampa Bay Classic for, of all people, Tryon. Is this a wacky world or what?

If Tim Finchem had inspected the responses, he might be inclined to rewrite Buy.com eligibility from scratch to reflect current ability. Problem is, Tour players on a gravy train aren’t fond of voting in more job insecurity than they already have.

Since May, young nonmembers Howell, David Gossett, Matt Kuchar and Bryce Molder have proved the point by excelling on the PGA Tour. They have done so against all odds. The Tour and everybody else needs to realize there are many more with that kind of talent who lack access. Without question the Tour breeded champions better under its pre-1983 system, when there was a top-60 exempt list and Monday qualifying. That was all about merit.

Consider this quote: “There should be 60 exemptions and 65-70 qualifying spots every week. This gives the younger fellows a chance to compete. Americans won’t maintain a higher standard with an all-exempt tour. It’s just not the free-enterprise system on which this great country was founded.”

That was Gary Player in 1986. Now the same problem infects the so-called developmental tour. At the least, the Buy.com should align with Player’s thought and have an open format and, like the growing Canadian Tour, more than one Q-School. Then there’s access.

Oh, and one more thing. A lengthy probe has found no truth to the rumor that Doug Ford and Herman Keiser will play the Buy.com Tour in 2002.

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