Martin: Dramatic N'wide Tour changes needed

Russell Knox, during the final round of the Chiquita Classic

Russell Knox, during the final round of the Chiquita Classic

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LA QUINTA, Calif. – The quest to dramatically change Q-School will continue next week when the PGA Tour’s staff presents its latest proposal at a mandatory players meeting. The changes are starting to seem inevitable.

The greatest criticism of the proposed qualifying system is that it keeps players from making the leap from college or the mini-tours to the PGA Tour. Many players would be required to spend a year on the Nationwide Tour, even though many of the PGA Tour’s biggest stars bypassed the secondary circuit.

Under the proposal, PGA Tour cards would be awarded through a season-ending series of events. Players would gain entry into that series through performance on the PGA and Nationwide tours. No PGA Tour cards would be available through Q-School, which would award only Nationwide Tour status.

I propose that radical Nationwide Tour changes – changes that would make the secondary circuit more accessible – should accompany the modifications to Q-School. It seems only fair that if one route to the PGA Tour were closed that another should be opened.

Making the Nationwide Tour more accessible would make the secondary circuit more intriguing. The tour would gain the charm that Q-School would be losing. It’d be easier for college prospects and mini-tour stars to play their way into the season-ending tournament series that will be the sole source of PGA Tour cards.

I offer these three proposals, which make the Q-School changes more palatable while making the Nationwide Tour more exciting. (The Nationwide Tour declined comment.)

• • •

1. No more membership: The Nationwide Tour reshuffles its membership several times per year. The reshuffle is the re-ranking of players in the priority rankings based on current-season earnings. The higher a player is in the priority rankings, the more starts he’ll get.

I propose including all players, not just members, in the second reshuffle (which occurs after the season’s 10th event) and beyond. This will further reward current performance. Nationwide Tour membership can be earned by finishing dead last at Q-School finals. That’s not exactly an awe-inspiring achievement, but it gives a player an advantage over his peers.

Let’s say Player A and Player B both Monday qualify for the Louisiana Open. Player A finished last at Q-School finals, and thus is a Nationwide Tour member. Player B is not a member.

Both players finish fourth in the tournament proper, earning $22,000. Player A will be included in the next reshuffle, after which his status will greatly improve. Player B gets the paycheck, a start in the next event (for finishing in the top 25) and nothing else.

Julian Etulain, a promising young player from Argentina, is a perfect illustration of the plight of non-members. He finished third and 13th in two of 2011’s early events, but made just three starts in the rest of the year. He fell short at some Monday qualifiers, and had trouble earning sponsor exemptions because American tournament directors were unfamiliar with him. Under my proposal, he would have shot up the priority rankings.

Non-members currently earn membership by equaling the earnings of No. 100 on the previous year’s money list. It sounds easy, but it’s not. Just 15 players have done so in the past five years. Many of those players didn’t earn their membership until very late in the season, providing them little reward for their accomplishment.

Waiting until the second reshuffle still would provide an advantage to members while also helping deserving non-members in their quest for a PGA Tour card.

• • •

2. Increase the number of Monday-qualifying spots to (at least) 20-25: I’d vote for 40 Monday-qualifying spots, but I’m also a realist. That would never fly.

Almost all Nationwide Tour events have 14 qualifying spots, compared with four for most PGA Tour tournaments. Even with 14 spots available, Monday qualifying into a Nationwide Tour event is an incredibly difficult task.

Russell Knox started 2011 without Nationwide Tour status. He had earned more than $300,000 in the past three Hooters Tour seasons but was “100 percent willing to go broke,” he said, trying to Monday qualify for Nationwide Tour events. That statement is testament to the difficulty of the task.

He finished second in his first Nationwide Tour start to earn status. It’s not as easy as he made it look, though. Monday-qualifying events often have more than 200 players spread over two courses.

More players will enter Monday qualifying if the Nationwide Tour becomes the only route to the PGA Tour. The PGA Tour should respond by increasing the number of Monday-qualifying spots.

Chasing Monday qualifiers is an expensive undertaking, with no guaranteed reward. With more spots available, top non-members, as well as Nationwide Tour members who didn't gain entry into that week's field, would be more likely to pay the necessary entry fee, airfare and lodging costs that come with trying to qualify.

The Nationwide Tour could become golf’s best reality show (not a difficult title to earn) as “rabbits” – the nickname for players who travel the country chasing Monday qualifiers – undertake rags-to-riches quests. People love a Cinderella story. This change also would make it easier for college stars to earn starts after graduation.

• • •

3. Reduce the so-called battlefield promotion from 3 wins to 2: I saved my most radical proposal for last. Let the PGA Tour put its money where its mouth is. If the Nationwide Tour is as strong as the PGA Tour claims, the Tour should be more eager to allow midseason promotions.

Think about the added excitement. There would be increased attention each time a player contends for a second title. Midseason events would have Q-School's intrigue as several contenders play for a PGA Tour card.

Four players won multiple events in each of the past two Nationwide Tour seasons. That’s a reasonable number to graduate instantly to the PGA Tour. Many players don’t win a second event until the fall, so it’s not as if two-time Nationwide Tour winners will clog up PGA Tour fields. Seeding them at the back of the Q-School/Nationwide Tour category would give the promoted a reasonable number of starts without overly rewarding them.

• • •

And there is my win-win proposal for the PGA Tour. To quote Bubba Watson on Twitter, #urwelcome.

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