The last stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament used to be so pressure-packed and all-important that grip-it-and-rip-it philosopher John Daly called it golf's fifth major. Only a decade ago, the Q school was pretty much the only road to the PGA Tour. That has changed. Nowadays, Q school is no longer a scary man-eating monster. It's more civilized. Think of Frankenstein, minus the neck bolt, in an Armani suit.
Q school, won this year by Sweden's Mathias Gr�nberg, a four-time winner on the European tour, remains the most direct route to the riches of the PGA Tour, but it's not the all-or-nothing affair it once was. Last week the 170 players who qualified for the school's third and final stage teed it up at Orange County National Golf Center and Lodge, outside Orlando, and the top 30 finishers and ties won tickets to the big Tour, while the next 50 were exempted onto the Nationwide tour, pro golf's equivalent of Triple A baseball. But everyone who competed at Orange County National at least got a lovely parting gift—conditional status on the Nationwide tour. Says long-hitting Scott Hend of Australia, who played on the Canadian tour last summer, "I simply wanted to get to the Nationwide tour, to be honest." He surprised himself by finishing 11 shots behind Gr�nberg in 21st place to jump directly to the PGA Tour.
Minor league golf has come a long way since 1990, when the Nationwide's low-budget predecessor, the Ben Hogan tour, was launched. The leading money winner on the 2003 Nationwide tour was Zach Johnson. He made $494,882, while the rest of the top 20 finishers—all of whom were awarded Tour cards—won more than $175,000 each. Beat that: decent money and on-the-job training against tough competition in a PGA Tour-type atmosphere.
The real Frankenstein now is the second stage of Q school. If you're young and fail to advance, as Bryce Molder, a four-time All-America at Georgia Tech, did last month, you'll wind up in Canada, like Hend, or in Asia, South America or on some regional tour in the U.S. If you're a Tour veteran and bomb out in the second stage, you'll probably be reduced to begging for sponsor's exemptions on the big Tour.
Q school may not be as scary as it once was, but the odds of making it all the way from there to the PGA Tour keep getting longer. In 1990 the top 50 and ties earned Tour cards while the top five on the Hogan money list advanced. Since then the number of cards allotted to Q school grads has steadily gone down while the number of Nationwide slots has gone up. This year there were five fewer spots for Q schoolers than last year and five more for Nationwide players. A 50-50 split, with 25 berths going to each group, is right around the corner, and many players think even that split is not going far enough.
"I wish they'd give all 50 spots to the Nationwide tour," says Rich Massey, a Canadian tour player from Harrington Park, N.J., who finished 121st last week at Orange County National. "A player should be judged on an entire season rather than on a crapshoot like Q school."
The numbers say that Nationwide pros are more Tour-ready than Q school survivors. Over the last seven years 43% of the Nationwide grads remained exempt on the PGA Tour after their rookie seasons compared with only 23% of the Q schoolers.
Daniel Chopra, a 29-year-old from Sweden, tried both routes. He bogeyed four of the last seven holes in the final Nationwide event of the season to miss the top 20 on the final money list by a gut-wrenching $1,164. Last week he easily got his card by finishing sixth at Q school. "It's not a week of hell," Chopra said of his six rounds at Orange County National. "It's certainly a long week, but it's not as bad as people make it out."
—Gary Van Sickle