The PGA Tour's Q-School: What's at stake?

Lee Westwood of England makes his approach shot on the 16th hole during the third round of the 93rd PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club on August 13, 2011 in Johns Creek, Georgia. UPI/Brian Kersey
Lee Westwood of England makes his approach shot on the 16th hole during the third round of the 93rd PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club on August 13, 2011 in Johns Creek, Georgia. UPI/Brian Kersey | License Photo

What do Jack Burke Jr., Dow Finsterwald, Ken Venturi, Doug Ford and Bobby Nichols all have in common?

They can access any PGA Tour event any time they want, while the winner of this year’s PGA Q-School, has to wait until about 35 people decide NOT to play a tournament in order to get a chance to play.


You might be thinking “How is this possible?” Or “Who is Dow Finsterwald?”

For answers to both questions, and for a closer look at the priority rankings system, check out the PGA Tour priority rankings list for 2012 tournament fields.

A Brief History of Professional Golf and the PGA Tour

PGA Tour golfers didn't always have the glamourous reputations that they do now. Initially, golf professionals were part of the help. They had to eat in the kitchen, out of club members' sights. Bobby Jones was much more respected than Walter Hagen, not so much for his victories but because he remained an amateur. Jones advised Jack Nicklaus to remain an amateur. He even told Jack that he would make more money playing business golf than he would on tour. Thankfully, Jack did not heed Jones’ advice.


The PGA Tour as we know it today -- the All-Exempt Tour -- is a radical change from professional tour that Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson played. Until the late 1960’s, when Arnold Palmer and television entered the scene, entry into tournaments was based on week-to-week performance -- a stressful system for most players. If you did not play well at a tournament, you had to do a qualifier -- generally held on a Monday -- to get into the next tournament. The “Monday Qualifier” concept is still used today -- four players get into every regular tour event via the Monday Qualifier.

With the advent of television, it became clearer that tournaments needed to become an entity separate from the PGA in order to have financial success. When Deane Beaman, one of the best players at the time and close friend of Nicklaus, took over as the second commissioner of the young PGA Tour, prize money grew exponentially. Under his command, the Tour grew into one of the most successful business ventures in American history.

The All-Exempt Tour and player "categories"

What the new All-Exempt Tour did was guarantee golfers access to all the tournaments each year. This improved overall performance and gave television audiences and sponsors the opportunity to get to know the players better. This drove up ratings and prize money.


The end result, however, is a pretty complex system of order of priority into these tournaments based on exemptions (Refer to a complete list of exemptions here). The easiest way to stay exempt for the following year is to win a tournament. If you win a tournament, you have an automatic two-year exemption. If you win a major, there's a five-year exemption. All players who finish in the top 125 on the end-of-year money list are exempt for the following year. Players that are not in the top 125 have to go back to Q-School.

Players who finished in the top 25 of Q-School gain access to tournaments through Category 25. They actually share this category with players 2-25 of the Tour (previously the Nationwide Tour). The exact order of players in category 25 is shuffled five times during the year to keep things fair.

A typical tour event playing field

A typical tour event will have a field of 132 players. There are roughly 180 names on the list in categories 1-24. To illustrate the playing field of a typical, early-season tournament, like the Waste-Management Phoenix Open, I have broken down the players entered by which category they used to enter the tournament.


A good look at the list of categories for the PGA Tour shows 104 people in categories 1-9, which represents players that have won tournaments (either on the PGA Tour since 2010, a Major since 2007 or a World Golf Championship since 2009). Of those players, there are 15 symbolic players (Dow Finsterwald, for example) that are on the list. That brings the list down to 89 players. Of those 89 players, only 55 chose to play in the Phoenix open. In addition, there are 51 players in category 19, which is last year’s top 125 on the money list. Seven of those players decided not to play.

Essentially, Q-School graduates have to wait until enough players decide not to play in order to get their chance.

By the end of the year, a Q-School graduate will have the opportunity to play in about 20 tournaments. Many of these tournaments are early in the year, when the stars are still not playing much, and toward the end of the year, when the stars have decided to lay back. What this means is that as a Q-School graduate, you have to be ready to travel anywhere on a day’s notice to go play in a tournament and you have to win or to make enough money to get into the top 125 of the money list.


If not, it used to mean going back to Q-School. But now, it will be back down to the Tour, where you will have to prove yourself for an entire year before you can graduate to the main tour again. Sometimes, school doesn’t seem so bad after all!


Stephen Moskal is currently the Director of Instruction for Golf Swing Exchange, an innovative on-line coaching platform whose goal is to revolutionize the ability for people to learn golf. A former professional golfer in Europe, Moskal turned pro in 1993 as a member of the French National Circuit and also spent time on the United Kingdom Mastercard Tour and the European Challenge Tour. Following a seven-year professional career, Moskal turned to teaching full-time in 1999. A 1990 graduate of Furman University with a degree in philosophy, Moskal was a four year letter winner with the Paladins and was a member of the academic honor roll. Most recently, Stephen studied under Top 100 instructor Mitchell Spearman, best known for working with major champions Nick Faldo and Ian Baker Finch. Stephen is also the Head Golf Coach at Marymount University in Arlington, VA.


(United Press International's Commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)


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