Changes OK’d for Q-School, 2013-14 season

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ORLANDO, Fla. – Big changes are coming to the PGA Tour, beginning in the fall of 2013.

Commissioner Tim Finchem, speaking Tuesday at Bay Hill Club & Lodge, site of this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, announced revisions to the schedule and the developmental Nationwide Tour. The PGA Tour’s Policy Board unanimously approved a proposal that had been circulating among players and management since last year.

The key moves:

• The 2014 PGA Tour season will start in October 2013;

• All 50 PGA Tour cards will be awarded through the Nationwide Tour;

• The final three Nationwide events will determine which players earn their cards for the next season;

• The annual Qualifying Tournament, known as Q-School, will be used to determine playing privileges on the Nationwide Tour only.

Finchem conceded that many details must be finalized, but he applauded the new path as “a restructure of our entire qualifying process, setting forth the Nationwide Tour as the pathway to the PGA Tour.”

The three-tournament qualifying series, which will determine the players promoted to the PGA Tour, could be the most contentious part of the makeover.

“We could tweak the FedEx Cup (playoffs) each year, because that was for our retirement,” said a source close to the board’s discussions who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to talk about the changes. “But these changes are not for our retirement but keeping a job. We can’t afford to get it wrong.”

Still to be determined: Where will those three tournaments be played?

When the FedEx Cup playoffs, which began in 2007, initially were outlined, critics said that some courses favored certain players, making the lucrative season-ending race unfair.

Since then, The Barclays has rotated among New York-area courses, and the BMW Championship has moved beyond its Chicago roots, to Indiana and Colorado. The Deutsche Bank Championship is anchored at TPC Boston, and the Tour Championship has found a home at Atlanta’s East Lake.

The BMW’s move to Cherry Hills in three years will be the first time the FedEx Cup Playoffs have crossed the Mississippi River.

Players have pointed out the inherent problems of holding playoff events exclusively at certain venues. They expressed similar concerns about the three-tournament qualifying series.

“The problem with that, to me, is almost like our playoff system where they force you to go to a certain place,” former board member David Toms. “At least in Q-School, you have to go to the finals in the same place, but you can pick where you want to go (in the first and second stages) until you get there.”

Finchem said the Tour is open to those concerns.

“In that time frame, we have pretty strong flexibility nationally weather‑wise,” he said. “The players, as you would expect, want to see some variety in the kind of golf courses we are going to play, and we’ll try to generate that.”

However, the Tour’s hands could become tied. According to sources involved in the discussions, the Tour is looking to find a sponsor for each event or create an umbrella sponsor for the final three events, each of which likely will award a $1 million purse.

Like Boston with Deutsche Bank and the Tour Championship with Coca-Cola, a sponsor likely could pick the course. So, the venues and any rotation will be discussed before the Tour’s next board meeting, in June.

Another issue will be the status of the fall that will start the season.

Previously, Golfweek had reported that eight tournaments likely would comprise the early part of the season. Finchem would not commit to a number Tuesday but said he anticipates the early part of the bifurcated season to start in early October and conclude by Thanksgiving.

The current Fall Series events, from which most of the early-season events will be picked, are not part of the FedEx Cup series and thus award no points toward the season championship.

With some sponsors, notably Frys.com and HSBC, voicing dismay with the current Fall Series, the Tour committed to awarding FedEx Cup points. Whether those points are full or partial is undecided.

“All of our fall official money events would receive FedEx Cup points,” Finchem said. “There is one lingering question that will be determined later in the year, and that is the distribution of FedEx Cup points among those events that have not been included in the FedEx Cup thus far; but the decision to include them in the FedEx Cup is final.”

Some of the World Golf Championships and the majors use the FedEx Cup list as part of the eligibility criteria. In recent years, the Masters, for example, has expanded its eligibility to provide winners of FedEx Cup events that award full points spots at Augusta National. If those season-opening fall events were to get FedEx Cup points, the Masters would be faced with granting as many as eight more exemptions.

Other issues are beyond the PGA Tour control but will affect current and future members:

• All current endorsement deals – equipment or otherwise – usually are written on a calendar basis. How will future deals be affected?

• How will these changes affect an amateur player who wants to turn pro?

According to Nick Raffaele, Callaway Golf’s vice president of sports marketing, existing deals might need amendment.

“You have to go back and review, because you want to make sure it’s equitable for both sides,” Raffaele said. “And then you’ve got to go through the negotiations.”

Hundreds of contracts, with potential negotiations with every player or agent, could be at stake.

Most contracts have been written on a calendar-year basis, but that could change, as well. Manufacturers have some history here: The European Tour season used to start in the fall.

“That’s something we’ll have to look at, is changing the language to read seasons instead of calendar years,” said Mac Fritz, the vice president of tour promotions at Acushnet. “But right now, we’ve got calendar years in place, and we’ll work through it, I’m sure.”

Top amateurs have a stake in these changes, too. This year, the NCAA men’s tournament ends June 3, which would mean that a player who advances to the NCAA finals would have only nine events in which to secure seven sponsor exemptions to earn his card via the money list or earn enough points to get into the top 200.

Using 2011 as a guide, 200th on the money list was Michael Letzig, at $169,973. No. 125 on the money list was D.J. Trahan, at $668,166.

For an accomplished player, the top 200 would not seem to be an issue. However, getting seven starts in events when only four sponsor exemptions are available each week would be a problem.

“I don’t think it changes the way they approach their careers,” agent John Wagner of IMG said about aspiring pros. “Guys are either ready to come out or they’re not ready to come out, and I think they’ll take equally as long and hard of a look as to whether it’s the right time for them or not based on their amateur and collegiate career and whether they’re ready to turn professional. It won’t be the determining factor in turning pro or staying amateur.”

Finchem left Bay Hill’s media center with an air of confidence and composure, but with so many details still unsettled, many touring pros will be looking to his Ponte Vedra Beach headquarters for guidance during the next three months.

“They approved it,” said Scott McCarron, a former Policy Board member and vocal critic of the changes. “I’ll wait and see what the details are.”

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