College to Q school: too tough a road
Kudos to Anthony Kim, formerly of Oklahoma, and Kyle Reifers, formerly of Wake Forest. The pair who played together on the victorious U.S. Walker Cup team in 2005 were the only two people in the 148-player field at this past week’s PGA Tour Qualifying School who the previous spring were members of college golf teams and both earned their tour cards. Kim finished T-13 and Reifers T-30, grabbing one of the last spots after making bogey on his final two holes.
One of my biggest problems with the PGA Tour is the closed shop they’ve created in trying to earn a tour card. Simply look who actually did play in La Quinta, Calif., and all the re-tred names that appear year in and year out (Michael Allen was making his 13th Q school appearance, having earned a card nine times; Marco Dawson, Brian Bateman and Dicky Pride earned cards for the fifth time). Everyone complains that there are no young Americans on the PGA Tour compared to the young Europeans or Aussies. Well, if the PGA Tour didn’t make it so difficult for recent college players to earn tour cards and gain the valuable experience of playing in PGA Tour events—or even just elbow their way past the old boy club that seemingly gets back to the final stage each year—maybe that wouldn’t be as big an issue.
Think about it: in football, baseball, basketball and hockey, top college players have direct access to playing at the highest level in the pro ranks thanks to the amateur entry drafts. In golf, there are essentially two ways a college player can get to the PGA Tour the season after he finishes his college career. The first is by getting sponsor’s exemptions into PGA Tour events and then earning enough money in those events to match what the 125th best player the previous season earned. Since 1980, Gary Hallberg, Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard, Tiger Woods and Ryan Moore are the only ones to accomplish this feat straight out of college.
Part of the problem here is that you’re assuming top college players can get the necessary sponsor’s exemptions. Well, that’s a huge assumption. Consider that Kim, who left Oklahoma after his junior year, could only manage to get one exemption (Valero Texas Open). He impressively finished tied for second in that event, which earned him a spot in the Southern Farm Bureau Classic the next week. A T-16 in Mississippi was also a solid showing, but was sadly the last he made on tour in 2006.
Mind you Kim isn’t just any college player; he was a first-team All-American who hits his driver 325 yards without making a full turn and has a short game to boot. If he were a college football player, he would got in the top-10 in the draft, maybe top five.
So instead of the first route available to college players, Kim and Reifers had to travel the other path: Q school. Because Kim had only two PGA Tour events worth of experience, he had to start at first stage and grind their way to a card. Reifers would have been in the same position, but because of his Nationwide Tour win at least got to skip first stage.
Long story short, since 2000, there has never been more than three players in any year that earned PGA Tour cards straight out of college. Instead, top talents such as Bryce Molder,Ricky Barnes,Brock Mackenzie had to languish in the minor leagues, losing confidence as their wait for another shot at Q school.
Consider the pedigrees of some of the players who got through Q school yesterday: Matt Hendrix, former first-team All-American at Clemson and Walker Cupper, who needed three tries to get on tour; Chris Stroud, Lamar All-American and semifinalist at the U.S. Amateur Public Links, needed three tries as well; Brendon De Jonge, Virginia Tech All-American needed four attempts; Tom Johnson, Northwestern All-American needed three.
Bottom line: the PGA Tour needs to figure out an improved feeder system to allow players directly out of college better access to the PGA Tour. I don’t mean the tour should hand out cards to any first-team All-American, but they should allow for amateur accomplishments to exempt players through the first stage of Q school. Can you imagine the NFL not allowing Notre Dame senior Brady Quinn to join the league next year unless he proved himself in three exhibition games first? That’s essentially what the PGA Tour does.
I know golf is a different sport, where you have to earn everything you get. I’m not asking that this change; college players need to earn their cards like everybody else. But as past PGA Tour players get to skip first and second stages, these college players are penalized for their youth. I know that’s not good for the players, and I’m not sure it’s good for the PGA Tour either.