The time has come to trim the fat, get rid of the mediocrity and create a system whereby remaining exempt on the PGA Tour is not a gimme. Tour officials cite a 50% turnover rate among the 125 exempt players since 1990 as evidence that there has been an ample infusion of new blood, but the truth is that, year after year, the same old names fill out tournament fields, making their requisite $140,000 to hold their exemptions and undermining the Tour's future by beating the system, if not very many of their golfing peers.
There are exceptioTs, like Peter Jacobsen, 41, who was 127th on the money list in 1992 but this year has won back-to-back tournaments and is first on the money list, with $915,460. John Morse, 37, who was 122nd last year, won the '95 Hawaiian Open. But for every Jacobsen or Morse there is a passel of hangers-on.
And the PGA Tour Policy Board knows it. This week at the Kemper Open, the board will vote on a proposal to reduce the number of exempt players from 125 to 115. That change would open the door for more young talent to make its way onto the Tour. If the proposal passes, which seems likely, there will be screaming from the marginal pros who make up a sizable block, and their views will be heard in two player meetings and by the Players Advisory Council before the final vote of the board. "Obviously there will be people opposed," says Lanny Wadkins. "They want to make it easy for themselves to stay out here."
The proposal won't change the number of players who can earn Tour privileges either by playing the Nike Tour, whose 10 top money winners each year get cards for the regular Tour, or by going through the annual qualifying school, at which the golfers with the 40 lowest scores earn cards. What will change, it is hoped, are the opportunities for the players who do earn their cards. "The system isn't broke, but I think the young player faces a lot of disadvantages in his attempt to demonstrate he can be competitive," says PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem.
The system assigns each nonexempt player a priority number. For example, Carl Paulson, 24 and the 1993 SEC Player of the Year while at South Carolina, finished 37th in Q school. Add the 10 Nike Tour players ahead of him and his priority number was 47 at the start of this season. That meant 46 spots had to be open in a tournament in order for him to get a crack at playing in it. With 125 exempt players and tournament fields usually numbering between 144 and 156 players, Paulson's chances of making it into a tournament are slim. So far this year, he has played in only seven Tour events and missed the cut in every one, earning no money. In contrast, Woody Austin, the medalist at last year's Q school, whose priority number is 11, has played in 18 of 22 events this year and is 28th on the money list.
Then there's David Duval, the four-time All-America from Georgia Tech who was eighth on the 1994 Nike Tour money list. Duval got off to a strong start on the PGA Tour this year: He finished second at Pebble Beach and the Bob Hope and was third on the money list after the West Coast swing. Despite that success, he was only an alternate for the Doral-Ryder Open. Then the Tour passed a rule allowing him to participate in The Players Championship in March.
"I'd love to see a system under which you can't keep a guy who's playing well out of an event," says Andy North, the two-time U.S. Open champion who joined the Tour in 1973, when Monday qualifying was still in place. "Monday qualifying really taught us how to play golf. You learned how to hang in there and gut it out. Fridays were important because you had to make the cut to get in the next week. You were grinding your guts out. I think it made us all better players."
Before the all-exempt Tour was started in 1983, only the top 60 from the money list were automatically exempt for the next year. Nonexempt players, called rabbits, played every Monday to qualify for the remaining spots in that week's tournament field. Then, players who made the cut were automatically in the next event.
"We all feel 125 is too high. You can't bring enough fresh blood in," says Jack Nicklaus. "It's a start, but 115 is a compromise," says Tom Kite. "It should go to 100, maybe even 90," says North. The all-exempt Tour did make it easier for players and tournaments to plan ahead, and it did away with the logistical difficulties of Monday qualifying. But even Gary McCord, who helped devise the current system, says that 125 was never a magic number. "I said, 'Let's float it for five years,' " McCord says. "If the guy who comes off the Tour is worse than the first guy coming on, the system is working."
In fact, the number should be lowered even more—to 75. Then you would see some serious grinding and more turnover. More David Duvals. Less mediocrity.