Insider: Exciting season setting up with Tour's new structure

February 07, 2013
Jeff Shain,

You can prove yourself in the marathon. Or, provided you ran a decent marathon, there’s a second opportunity in the sprint.

The race to a prized PGA TOUR card, though, now runs solely through the Tour.

That’s the hub around which a season of change revolves, starting in two weeks at the Panama Claro Championship. With all 50 of the PGA TOUR’s new-arrival slots each year to be filled via the Tour, the spotlight grows.

“I think it’s going to showcase guys on the Tour more than in the past,” said D.J. Brigman, who has hopscotched between the two tours for 11 seasons. “It’ll put guys on platforms they didn’t have before.”

Not that The 25 has become passé. But those top 25 spots on the money list now are only one facet in the new framework in place for 2013.

Here’s the primer:

• The race to determine The 25 now stands at 21 events, the final day coming Aug. 24 at the Cox Classic in Omaha, Neb. The man atop the money list receives a full exemption for 2013-14, including an automatic berth in THE PLAYERS Championship.

• The top 75 in earnings – including those who secured cards as part of The 25 – advance to a four-event “finals” series that also takes in Nos. 126-200 from the FedExCup points chase. Additional slots will be created for any non-member who would have earned if he were a member, ehough points to place him among the top 200 on that money list.

• A separate Finals money list will determine the remaining cards, going to the top 25 who hadn’t already secured promotion. That earnings leader also will receive full status and a berth in THE PLAYERS.

• For the other 48 qualifiers, Finals earnings will rank them for entry priority into 2013-14 tournaments.

• PGA TOUR cards no longer will be given out through the previous four-stage qualifying system. Top finishers there now secure Tour membership.

“It’ll be interesting to see how the year plays out,” said Tour president Bill Calfee. “It may not be the perfect system, but we’ll see how it goes this first year.”

Though the restructuring was announced last March, it took another 3 ½ months to settle on the details. Several proposals were considered that would give higher Finals qualifiers some sort of points advantage at the start, though none could muster enough support.

“The ‘how’ was the one that everybody seemed to really grapple with,” Calfee said. “We never could come to a consensus on [balancing] the two tours in some seeding fashion.”

In the end, it was agreed to preserve cards for The 25, wipe the slate clean otherwise and let competition sort out the rest. All four Finals events feature the same $1 million purse.

“Sometimes people don’t understand points, but everyone understands money,” said Rob Oppenheim, a three-year Tour veteran. “It’s a million-dollar purse and you get this much for where you finish.”

Said Calfee: “We keep hearing the debate about PGA TOUR vs. Tour players and how they stack up. Now we’ll see how they fare head-to-head in those four tournaments.”

It could produce some intriguing contrasts. Had the system been in place last year, the PGA TOUR’s 126-200 list would have included such high-profile names as Camilo Villegas, Chris DiMarco, Lee Janzen and John Daly.

“That ought to create some new excitement,” Oppenheim said.

And new exposure. Two of the four Finals events will be played during open weekends on the PGA TOUR, including the card-deciding finale on the Dye’s Valley course at TPC Sawgrass.

“The fans are going to have more info about these guys starting their PGA TOUR careers than they’ve had before,” Brigman said.

Whoever claims the cards also should be able to take a little momentum into the new PGA TOUR season – just 11 days will stand between the Tour Championship’s final putt and the start of the Open in California.

“A rookie coming out will be sharper, for sure,” said Philip Pettitt Jr., readying for his second Tour season. “If I earn a card [in the Finals], I’d want to get back out immediately. They’re going to be sharp and confident.”

Said Calfee: “When you’re a rookie or a younger guy and you’ve got to sit around six or eight weeks to get playing again, it’s kind of frustrating. Now you get your card and you’re ready to go.”

Not that all rookies had trouble with the layoff.

Russell Henley’s wire-to-wire victory at the Sony Open made him the first man since 2001 to win his PGA TOUR debut. One week later, David Lingmerth was part of a three-man playoff at the Humana Challenge. Had he won, he would have joined Jhonattan Vegas as the second rookie to capture that event in the past three years.

Asked what made him adapt to the PGA TOUR so quickly, Henley didn’t hesitate. “I think [it was] a year on the Tour,” he said.

The words brought a smile to Brigman, chairman of the Tour’s Player Advisory Committee, who lobbied hard to keep allotment at 25 cards for full-season excellence.

“At times, I was thinking we’d have to settle on a number around 20 guys,” said Brigman, a non-voting member of the TOUR’s Policy Board.

“All I could do was stomp my feet and pound my fist as much as I could. The guys on the board had the voting power. Fortunately, there were some guys on the board that had played the Tour and recognize the fact that it’s a difficult Tour.”

And one now growing in scope. In addition to now controlling all 50 PGA TOUR cards, it has acquired a bit of its own feeder system with slots set aside for top earners from the newest branches on the PGA TOUR tree.

This year’s roster includes the top five in earnings from PGA TOUR Latinoamérica’s inaugural season. Next year, five more will be given to PGA TOUR Canada’s top performers.

“There are so many good players out there on the smaller tours,” said Oppenheim, who in 2006 finished second on the Canadian Tour’s order of merit. “It’s encouraging that those guys now have a way to get to the Tour.”

And, ultimately, a path to the PGA TOUR.

“You might have to tweak it a little here or there to get it just right, but I think it’s a good structure,” Pettitt said.

“It’s 150 guys [in the Finals], this amount of money and go play. You can’t get better than that. You control your own destiny. No one else controls it but you. You take care of business, and everything’s great.”