Q-school has a safety net

On the Fringe

Posted: Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Curtis Strange can relate to the 171 players who will have sweaty palms, dry throats and churning stomachs before every shot during six grueling rounds of the PGA Tour qualifying tournament this week.

''Enormous pressure, sleepless night ... everything you've heard, it's all true,'' Strange said Tuesday, recalling how his first trip through Q-school in 1976 ended in failure.

''You know that if you don't make it through this, you don't have a job,'' he said. ''Because back then, there was no Nationwide Tour. There was no anything.''

Times have changed.

Strange went six months without work before he got another crack at Q-school. Dillard Pruitt, now a PGA Tour rules official, didn't make it through Q-school in 1984. So, he signed up for mini-tours from Florida to California and tournaments that barely paid the winner enough to cover expenses.

Before anyone starts feeling sorry for the guys who leave Q-school Monday without their PGA Tour cards, keep in mind they have a safety net.

It's called the Nationwide Tour.

The top 50 players who don't get their cards can play a full schedule on the tour's developmental circuit, and they no longer play for chump change.

Zach Johnson won the Nationwide Tour money title this year with just under $500,000, and the top 15 players earned at least $200,000.

The bottom feeders at Q-school get conditional status on the Nationwide, and they can expect a relatively full schedule as long as they play well.

Johnson started the year with conditional status and wound up setting an earnings record.

Tripp Isenhour and Tommy Tolles were in the same position, and both finished in the top 20 on the money list to earn a trip back to the big leagues.

For those who can't cut it on the Nationwide, there are plenty of other established places to play, from the Hooters Tour to the Golden Bear Tour to the DP Tour.

Chad Campbell spent three years on the Hooters Tour and won 13 times during his slow rise through the ranks, which culminated last month with his victory in the Tour Championship.

''It wasn't too bad,'' Campbell said, referring to neither the chicken wings nor the waitresses serving them. ''I had a lot of success out there. It wasn't like I had no money and was playing on my last dollar.''

Clearly, Q-school is no longer the end of the road.

The field at Orange County National outside Orlando, Fla., includes 15 past champions on the PGA Tour who can still get into at least a dozen PGA events.

Some players, like Aaron Barber, already have conditional status on the PGA Tour and can expect to play 20 times. They're at Q-school for the sole purpose of improving their pecking order so they don't have to show up at tour events with an ''alternate'' tag next to their names.

The pressure is still stifling for those trying to get their cards, although it's not quite the same as it was before the Nationwide Tour was created in 1990.

Bill Calfee, chief of operations for the Nationwide Tour, played 20 years ago and went to Q-school five times before he finally got his card in 1976.

''There was a hell of a lot more pressure,'' Calfee said. ''At least now with the Nationwide Tour, if you get to the finals (of Q-school) you have a viable place to play with good, solid purses where you can make some money. When I was trying to play, if you didn't get your card, you were out in no man's land.

''It was easier to make a career change.''

The difference between the top 30 who get their cards, and the next 50 who are relegated to the Nationwide Tour, is playing for an extra digit in the paycheck. The difference can be private jets or commercial flights, network television coverage or The Golf Channel.

Those exiled to the Nationwide Tour after this week won't get courtesy cars at every tournament. The total purse is equal to second-place money at some PGA Tour events.

Still, the man who dreamed up the idea of a Nationwide Tour wonders if life is too good, if the penalty for failing at Q-school shouldn't be more severe.

''I've got mixed feelings about as much money as there is on that tour,'' former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman said. ''I've seen guys who were good enough to hang on, but never good enough to make it. I was looking for a level of prize money where one could make enough to sponsor himself, but harsh enough that the marginal guys were looking for a new job.''

The most pressure-packed event in golf is no longer the third and final stage of Q-school. It's the second stage, where those left behind are stuck with the mini-tours just like the old days when they have to be honest about their talent and decide how much they're willing to sacrifice.

There will be horror stories next week, as always.

Someone will chunk a wedge into the water or three-putt from 10 feet. There will be anguish and tears.

But it won't be the end of the world.

Doug Ferguson covers golf for The Associated Press.



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