PGA Tour should extend hand up to golf's little guys

Keegan Bradley played his way through mini-tour competition en route to becoming a major champion and PGA Tour success story.

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With the creation of PGA Tour China in 2014, the PGA Tour has incentivized players to compete in Canada, Latin America and now China with the carrot of earning Web.com Tour status.

This is good for the global growth of professional golf, but where does that leave American mini-tour golf? Still out in the cold with no Web.com Tour cards or exemptions into PGA Tour Q-School.

It’s time for the PGA Tour to take the next step in establishing a stable minor-league circuit. The Tour has started laying the foundation to the point that professional golf never has more closely mirrored baseball, where future prospects move up the ladder on the way to the big leagues.

For more than two decades, the Web.com has served as the primary feeder system to the PGA Tour, equivalent to Triple-A baseball, if you will. That role was cemented with Q-School graduates earning Web.com cards beginning this year. (How has the change affected participation? According to Andy Pazder, the PGA Tour’s executive vice president of tournament operations, 2013 Q-School entries dropped by 19 percent, to approximately 1,100.)

Mini-tour golf has suffered from the specter of too many fly-by-night operations. In the three years since the inception of the West Florida Golf Tour, its tour operators have witnessed nine mini-tours go out of business. And yet another seemingly sprouts just as quickly to fill the void. (There are seven mini-tours in Orlando this winter.) Without any regulating body overseeing developmental golf, the barriers to entry are few.

That’s begun to change with the Tour’s forays into developmental golf. By offering five Web.com Tour cards to the top 5 money leaders in Canada and Latin America (and soon China), the PGA Tour has elevated the status of those circuits. But not every player can afford to travel to play a mini-tour. Mini-tour golf works best regionally – for example, the eGolf Tour in the Carolinas – where players can live in one place and eke out a living while honing their game.

The mini-tours are the Rodney Dangerfields of golf. They get no respect, but every year they are a haven for talented golfers left on the sidelines in need of a place to play. The winner of last week’s McGladrey Classic, Chris Kirk, competed on the eGolf Tour in 2009 before he climbed his way to the big leagues. 2013 Tour winners Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed and Web.com graduates John Peterson and Patrick Cantlay are among the recent Q-School flameouts who were on the outside looking in without any status. Each made it the hard way, as did the 14 major winners whom the NGA Tour counts among its alumni, Keegan Bradley included.

Another reason the Tour should increase its involvement in mini-tour golf: more Tour-caliber players need a place to play, especially during the winter months. If a player doesn’t finish in the top 75 on the Web.com money list, he could be sidelined from September (the end of the regular season) until the new season in February. The first domestic Web.com likely won’t be held until late March. That’s too long of a layoff. Then there’s the likes of Will Wilcox, who earned his Tour card for 2013-14 but has been shut out of Tour fields this fall. With nowhere else to play, he tried to stay sharp at an NGA event in late October.

The logical next step would be for the Tour to start its own domestic feeder tour, buy one or more of the existing mini-tours or put its stamp of approval on one of the independent circuits. The Tour, however, says it has no plans to start or support a U.S.-based developmental tour.

“We spend an awful lot of time and energy making sure our existing tours run on solid ground, and our focus had been and remains making sure they remain as solid as they can be,” Pazder said. “We don’t have an appetite to bring on a fourth domestic tour.”

One could argue that college golf serves as the U.S.-based feeder system to the Web.com Tour, and that may be true. But the PGA Tour could have several different tours throughout the country as feeders to the Web.com. They could control the landscape.

Why wouldn’t the Tour involve the NGA or eGolf Tour – both with track records of stability for more than a decade – and give their players an avenue to play their way onto the Web.com Tour, too? What’s the downside?

“I don’t know that there is any,” Pazder said. “If you go down that path with one to give exemptions into first stage or second stage of Q-School, there’ll be a line around the corner. Where do you draw the line of what mini-tour is worthy and which aren’t? We think the system as it is works fine. In the foreseeable future, I don’t see any changes.”

Once again, it appears the mini-tours get no respect.

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