—Compiled by Sal Johnson
1 Getting Schooled
Last week the fifth and final Q school prequalifier finished up, and 224 PGA Tour hopefuls earned the right to enter the official three-stage qualifying tournament, which begins on Oct. 21. For these players it may seem as if Tour riches and stardom are only a few good weeks of golf away, but that's not necessarily the case.
2 Stage Fright
Even if a player gets through the pre-qualifier, the deck is stacked against him in terms of making it to the PGA Tour. In 2008, 951 players entered the first stage and only 315 advanced; 500 entered the second stage and only 125 advanced. The third stage had 163 participants and only the top 25 and ties earned Tour cards; 26th to 50th and ties were awarded Nationwide tour cards. The number of those advancing doesn't equal the number who enter the next stage because at each step along the way the survivors are joined by a pool of increasingly experienced and accomplished players who've been given an exemption into that stage. They include players from foreign tours, high money winners from the previous year's Nationwide and PGA tours, top finishers from the PGA Professionals tournament, guys who've made the cut in a given number of official events and those who've achieved a predetermined position in the World Ranking—among other criteria. In other words, every time you advance you have to take on all the other players who've advanced and a slew of seasoned players who've been given a free pass to that round. That's why some of those PGA Tour players who never quite seem to cut it also never seem to go away. The system is set up to give them an advantage in making their way back.
3 Long Shots
If a player survives the 324-hole grind of a prequalifier and all three stages of Q school, his problems are just beginning. Each player on Tour gets an eligibility number based on his status, and players with higher numbers are given priority when it comes to doling out spots in tournament fields. Q schoolers are near the bottom of the pecking order, which means it's hard for them to get into tournaments. The eligibility numbers are reset several times a year based on performance up to that point, so it's possible to move up—but it's tough.
As an example, look at last year's Q schoolers. Only eight of the 28 graduates went through all three stages. These guys received some of the lowest eligibility numbers, and so far this season they have averaged 16.4 Tour starts. The other 20 Q school qualifiers have averaged 20 starts, and the Nationwide grads have averaged 21.5 starts (not including those who haven't pursued a full schedule). No surprise then that the best of the eight players who went through all three stages, Aaron Watkins (left), is a mere 175th on the Tour money list after earning $250,889 in 14 starts. The five-tournament Fall Series looms large for this group, either allowing them to crack the top 125 and keep their cards—or providing good practice for another trip to Q school.