The Undercover Tour Pro
Faking injuries for medical extensions has become a strategy to keep a tour card
It's a relief to have my PGA Tour card again. Last season on the Web.com Tour I busted my hump. We golfers are very fortunate with the living we make, but suddenly earning one-tenth of what you're accustomed will shock anyone's budget. It's basically like losing your job.
I wish I'd done better in the Web.com playoffs. Knowing I had my card locked up, it was tough to stay intense. Of course, one can argue this security might've freed me up to go low. Well, that didn't happen. I got passed in the priority ranking by guys who had one or two hot weeks.
So really, the new four-event playoff series isn't much different from Q school. A burst of good golf at the right time trumps an entire season.
When it comes to getting into tournaments, I don't mind queuing behind guys who torched the playoffs or who have played great since to move up. What bothers me is being 10th alternate for a field that has 11 guys in on medical extensions. The PGA Tour medical-extension policy, which grants a golfer recovering from injury a certain number of starts to retain his card, is heavily abused. The formula that determines how much money must be made in how many events is fine. It's the lack of oversight that's the problem.
Occasionally you'll hear locker-room banter that so and so is taking advantage of a medical extension. Sometimes it's friendly ribbing—who doesn't like a good groin-injury joke? But mostly it's not funny. For guys like me, a single position on a list can alter your fate for a week, which might mean a season, or maybe even a career.
Suppose you miss the first five cuts of the year. Might be tempting to complain about your wrist to your doctor and get a note. To my knowledge, the PGA Tour has never denied an application. You'll receive a disability payment of up to $10,000 a month that can be tax-free. It used to be $20,000, but in 2008 the tour changed it to ensure the program would be sustainable. Most guys on extensions are at home playing every day, with no caddie or travel expenses, working on their games until they feel ready to return. When they come back, they pick their favorite courses. If a guy has 20 events and wants to milk it, he might play his five favorite events over four seasons. There's no limit to how long a major medical can last, as long as you reapply each season. Erik Compton competed five months after his second heart transplant. That should cause anyone who nurses a sore shoulder across multiple seasons to stop and think.
I also believe golf-related injuries shouldn't count. If you break a leg in a car accident, then by all means, you deserve the safety net and chance to regain your livelihood once you heal. But if you get tendinitis from hitting too many range balls? Sorry, pal. Work on your fitness and technique. Managing your health and rest is all part of being a tour pro.
If you're seriously hurt, you should have to go see a PGA Tour-approved doctor. I've heard rookies—fit guys in their early 20s—talk openly about the best timing to declare a medical. It has become a strategy to hold on to a card! For every legitimate injury out here, there are probably three that are bogus. But the fact is, I'm part of a small minority that is directly affected. Fully exempt players don't really care, because they get into the tournaments they want. Tournament directors aren't bothered, because the guys getting into their fields on medicals tend to be more famous names. But it's not right. And nothing will change until a player whose name carries weight, a McIlroy or a Mickelson, stands up on behalf of the guys playing hard to stay afloat. If you knew my name, it wouldn't change a thing.
There's a guy who won the U.S. Open on one leg because he knew he could. But if your game is slipping and you just can't get things to click, maybe that wrist or shoulder starts to ache that much more. The PGA Tour needs to create a truly fair system so that young guys can carve their paths unhindered by those playing the game off the course.