PGA Tour's new era means there is less space available

  • Follow Scott Michaux

The marketing pitch says "a new era in golf" is beginning, which implies that an old era has disappeared.

What the average pro golfer hopes isn't disappearing is his chance to be a part of it.

The PGA Tour debuts its FedEx Cup season this week, presenting a NASCAR-styled points race in a truncated season leading to a four-event series culminating at the Tour Championship in September. The intended goal was to not only make the end of the season more enticing to football-diverted fans, but also to bring together the best players in larger concentrations at more events along the way.

With Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson - the two biggest draws in the game and the most vocal proponents of a shorter season - skipping the winners-only event in Hawaii this week for the second consecutive year, the FedEx Cup isn't off to the best possible start. It's unlikely the new format will alter either one of their traditional schedules a great deal.

But how it will play out with the rest of the PGA Tour is a major question, with ramifications that trickle down to every level of professional golf. If players higher up the PGA Tour's rank-and-file food chain gobble up more spots in fields during the condensed FedEx Cup season, what will that do to the playing chances of up-and-coming qualifiers such as Aiken native Matt Hendrix?

And if low-ranking PGA Tour members have to keep the rust off by playing Nationwide Tour events, where does that leave the long-range prospects with conditional status such as Augusta's Scott Parel?

"There are a lot of question marks going into this year with this FedEx Cup stuff," said Franklin Langham, a 39-year-old veteran entering the 2007 season with full status on the Nationwide Tour. "It's a good year to have fully exempt status. Coming out of tour school is almost like a conditional card. You get in when there's space available. It's getting more and more competitive, yet there seem to be less and less spots and harder and harder to get a start."

This preview focuses on 10 Augusta-area pros ranging from former U.S. international team players Vaughn Taylor and Charles Howell to touring-life rookies such as USC Aiken products Scott Brown and Dane Burkhart.

Of the 10 players, only four are card-carrying members of the PGA or Nationwide Tours. And only three of those - Taylor, Howell and Langham - can sit down right now and tell you every regular event they wish to play in with full confidence that they are eligible. Q-school qualifier Hendrix has no idea how his rookie PGA Tour schedule will evolve or where he'll have the chance to play.

"This is going to be a trial run, and we see how it affects fields and starts," Hendrix said. "It will be a learning year for everybody, but being a part of the first year of the FedEx Cup is pretty exciting."

Just how much players with Hendrix's status will play is debatable, and how they handle the potential down time will be important.

"You don't want to sit on the bench, so to speak, for a month and all of the sudden get in an event and feel like you haven't played a tournament in a while," Langham said. "Some of those guys are going to have to play (at a lower level) to stay competitive.

"It's a domino effect," he added. "It remains to be seen how incentivized the top players are for the FedEx Cup. The fact that you're shrinking the season by two months and you're still trying to keep your status, those guys are going to have to play more in a concentrated area. Which means less guys from tour school get in on the PGA Tour, but they've got to keep playing so they're going to come down to the Nationwide Tour. So all the tours are getting more and more competitive."

Parel, 41, wonders what that will mean for him. Starting his second consecutive season with conditional status on the Nationwide Tour, he sees a more crowded road ahead trying to earn that elusive PGA Tour card when limited fields get laced with more players trying to keep in competitive shape.

"They don't have anywhere to go, either, so there's a really good chance that there will be maybe 10 guys every week who have PGA Tour cards but can't get in there," Parel said.

"Nobody knows how that's going to shake out. The PGA Tour was not formed for two or three different guys. It's very frustrating for the middle-of-the-road guys. The tour is one-dimensional in what they're trying to do."

Even a major winner and veteran like Larry Mize will eat into some of the prospect's opportunities. Mize, 48, entered the window of preparation for the Champions Tour, meaning he'll have access to Nationwide Tour events to prepare when PGA Tour spots are limited.

It's all creating a much more crowded melting pot for aspiring pros.

"It's kind of a catch-22," Langham said. "It's awesome what they're trying to do is get the top players playing more against each other, but the unspoken part of it is that you're pushing a lot of guys off of the tour. It's frustrating for us as players, because a lot of times what is good for the PGA Tour isn't always good for the members of the PGA Tour.

"If you're not out there it's getting harder and harder to get out there and get your status. Other sports are expanding and as players it feels like our sport is contracting."

Not every pro thinks that's a bad thing. Augustan John Engler failed to keep his PGA Tour card as a rookie last year, and he'll try to scratch his way back with limited status on the Nationwide Tour. But he still sees the potential of the "new era."

"I think that's a good thing in golf," he said of the changes. "Having too many players and not enough places to play, everybody says that's such a bad thing. But it's going to make competition that much harder and golf that much more exciting. Even the younger guys will realize that's really what creates all the revenue.

"I think the FedEx Cup will work. I think the biggest thing is change for everybody is something that is hard to see. It may have some kinks in the first year, but in the long run it will be something that the people of golf and people who watch golf want."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.


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