Uihlein could change the pro game as an amateur
Monday, August 29, 2011
Peter Uihlein made it to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur this year, following a victory in 2010 and another trip to the quarterfinals in 2009.
However, this fall, Uihlein is going to do something that Tiger has never done and will never do - he is volunteering to walk golf’s most harrowing gauntlet for little or no benefit.
Uihlein will attend Q-School - as Golfweek's Sean Martin reported earlier this week - but he will not turn pro regardless of how well he does. Amateurs can attend Q-School without affecting their amateur status if they turn down all professional benefits.
Uihlein is clearly one of the best amateurs in the world and certainly plans on following his former Oklahoma State teammate, Rickie Fowler, to the PGA Tour. However, he has stated categorically that he will not turn professional until after his senior season sometime next spring or summer. So even if he earned a PGA Tour card he would turn it down.
On one hand, Uihlein's ambition to get ahead and gain further professional experience is admirable. But the other part of me - the one that played in a dozen fall classics - wonders what he is thinking.
When Uihlein does turn pro, the sponsor’s exemptions are going to be waiting for him. He will have seven events to become a special temporary member by earning the equivalent of No. 150 on the previous year’s money list. If he is successful, he could then receive unlimited sponsor exemptions for the rest of that season.
The last player to earn his PGA Tour card by this route was Ryan Moore, although Rickie Fowler came close. But if he is unsuccessful, he could then go to Q-School in 2012.
Here is where things get interesting.
At the players meeting at the Barclays, the PGA Tour spoke further with the players about the proposal unveiled earlier this season to funnel all successful Q-School entrants to the Nationwide Tour. Nationwide’s umbrella sponsorship of the PGA Tour’s feeder system ends at the end of next season. In an effort to bolster the attractiveness of the Nationwide Tour to a potential sponsor, the PGA Tour has proposed changes to the system by which players earn their playing privileges on the PGA Tour.
A series of three season-ending tournaments would be conducted with combined fields of Nationwide Tour players and PGA Tour players who finished outside the top 125 on the money list. From these events, 50 would earn playing privileges on the PGA Tour the following season.
Should these proposed changes take effect next season in any form, Uihlein could be going to the last Q-School where players advance directly to the PGA Tour. If those changes are announced and take effect before the 2011 Q-School, it will be interesting to see if Uihlein changes his mind on turning pro now.
No date for the final decision on the new Q-School structure has been set, presumably because no title sponsor has been found.
The Nationwide Tour is a tough sell for sponsors for the simple reason that it loses its best players every year. It lacks star power. Uihlein, top-ranked amateur Patrick Cantlay and the other top amateurs in the game today seem like a logical fix for tomorrow. But they may not stand for it and who could blame them? For many of these players another option lurks across the Atlantic. The European Tour has its own qualifying tournament and gives players direct access to its best events without forcing them to the Challenge Tour for a year.
This year, like most years, a player cannot play both the European Q-School and the U.S. Q-School because of overlaps in the schedule. Assuming that stays true, a shift in power could be on the horizon.
At this point it is not just Americans and Europeans that are affected. The game is global and international players from places like Australia, South Africa and Asia have to make the decision every fall which qualifying tournament they are going to attend. The U.S. Q-School has always won that race. The new Q-School proposal might change that, as the European Tour Q-School will be much more enticing because there is an immediate dividend.
At the moment, seven of the top 10 amateur players in the world are American according to the World Amateur Golf Rankings. With the success of Cantlay, Harris English (Nationwide Tour Winner), Jordan Spieth and Uihlein in the professional game, the profile of top amateurs is higher than ever. It would be a travesty for the PGA Tour to lose those players to the European Tour by shutting off their direct route to the PGA Tour. There are large endorsement deals waiting for all of these players. The higher the profile of a player, the higher his endorsement deal. Even in America the European Tour gets more television time than the Nationwide Tour.
Regardless of whether or not Uihlein’s decision to attend Q-School makes much sense it could have a significant impact on the future.
Should Uihlein earn a PGA Tour card this year and turn it down only to be denied another opportunity for two years the criticism will echo across the landscape of professional golf.
The PGA Tour could become the only professional sport by which its best young players are refused the opportunity to compete on a regular basis against the best in the world. It is also one of the few sports who routinely calls its competitions “open.”