PGA Tour change ushers in youth movement
When the PGA Tour eliminated Qualifying School, or “Q School” as it was commonly known five years ago, as a way to get a tour card, many in the golf industry were uneasy about what might happen.
Agents feared it could hurt endorsement contracts for golfers who were about to turn pro, as they would be forced onto the lower-profile developmental tour.
Worse, many in the industry worried it could slow the avalanche of precocious golfers who not only were getting tour cards but winning PGA Tour events at younger and younger ages. After all, if golfers had to spend at least one more year on the developmental tour, wouldn’t that slow down the youth movement?
Instead, what has happened is the endorsement contract model has evolved to where players get paid more if they are on the PGA Tour, with an increasing focus on the very best young players. And although most golfers now spend at least a year on the developmental Web.com Tour, the average age of PGA Tour players on the top 125 money list continues to drop.
According to the PGA Tour, the average player age on the PGA Tour’s top 125 was 32.2 in 2017, compared to 33.7 in 2012 when the change was instituted, representing a drop of 4.5 percent.
When you look at the increase of players in their 20s on the PGA Tour, the youth movement is even more stark. In the last 10 years, the number of golfers in their 20s with full PGA Tour membership grew from 31 in 2007 to 49 in 2017, an increase of almost 60 percent, according to the PGA Tour. The tour’s first event of 2018 was indicative of the trend. At the Sentry Tournament of Champions this month in Hawaii, the average age of the field was 29.7 — the first time since 1970 that it was under 30.
After five years, the result of the system is that players are better prepared for success on the PGA Tour, while it also has infused a major youth movement, with no indication it’s slowing down.
Reason for the change
The PGA Tour did not dump “Q School” to hold up the young guns. Instead, it was a long-discussed plan to try to bring the best and most deserving players onto the tour.
“It came from the research we had done,” said Dan Glod, Web.com Tour president. “What we saw was the trend line that, generally speaking, players that played a full season on the Web.com Tour in obtaining a PGA Tour card were in a position to be more successful compared to those who played a few stages in Q School.”
Under the old system, Q School was a six-round tournament over a week in the fall and the top-25 finishers would get PGA Tour cards. A player could get lucky, catch lightning in a bottle and be on the PGA Tour the next year. Under the old system, 25 cards were also reserved for players who won on the developmental tour.
Players can still make the PGA Tour without playing on the Web.com Tour by earning enough money through sponsor exemptions in PGA Tour events, but only the very best golfers have accomplished that feat, such as Jordan Spieth and Jon Rahm.
Under the new system, all 50 cards come from the developmental tour, which was renamed the Web.com Tour under a 10-year sponsorship deal in 2012.
The new system was something that the PGA Tour implemented at the same time it was looking for a sponsor to replace Nationwide for the then Nationwide Tour. The idea to focus on players qualifying through the developmental tour was already in the deal that it presented to potential sponsors and was one of the main reasons Web.com signed on, said David Brown, Web.com chairman, CEO and president.
Two kinds of contracts
Golf agents were upset when the new Web.com Tour qualifying system was put in place five years ago, mainly because they worried that it would hurt endorsement contracts for top players turning pro. And, to some degree, that’s exactly what has happened. Except for a handful of the top amateurs, players must prove themselves and play their way onto the PGA Tour to get paid substantial endorsement money.
“We consider players to be part of the Callaway team that we feel have a high probability of playing the PGA Tour,” said Tim Reed, Callaway senior vice president of global sports marketing. “We will construct a contract and put a value on what he is worth to us on the Web [tour] and what he is worth to us on the PGA Tour and they are different. There are different values contained in the same agreement.”
Reed acknowledged the value of playing on the Web.com Tour was less than playing on the PGA Tour, but would not quantify it.
Agents said that a new system has evolved, but it took some time.
“In the initial phase of it, a lot of players had culture shock because they have seen some players ahead of them get some big contracts because they were potentially able to go to the PGA Tour right away, which is very difficult to do now,” said Steve Loy, president of golf at Lagardère Sports, and agent to Rahm, ranked No. 3 in the World Golf Ranking.
Over time, golf agents and companies have negotiated a system that pays different rates based not only on what tour the golfer plays, but also incentives he can hit, including winning or playing well in major tournaments, Loy said.
“An average player on the Web.com will probably make $100,000 for a club contract — Callaway, Titleist, TaylorMade — but if they get to the PGA Tour, it could be anywhere from $250,000 to $5 million based on how good they are,” Loy said.
One golf company executive said that although some high-profile college golfers may get $100,000 in golf equipment endorsement pay to play on the Web.com Tour, the norm is closer to about $40,000 a year.
Golf companies signing amateurs turning pro are essentially making a bet on the potential of what that golfer could be in the future. Knowing that players coming out of college will likely play a year on the Web.com Tour has reduced the market for good, young players who are not seen as superstars, as well as for older PGA Tour veterans, said John Mascatello, executive vice president and managing director of Wasserman’s golf division.
For the U.S. collegiate players turning pro, what the new system has created is golf “lottery picks,” akin to NBA draft lottery picks, Mascatello said.
During the same 10-year period that the number of players in their 20s on the PGA Tour’s top 125 has increased by about 60 percent, the number of players in their 40s has decreased by 40 percent. From 2007 to 2017, players 40 and older who were ranked in the top 125 dropped from 29 to 17.
Generally speaking, players that played a full season on the Web.com Tour in obtaining a PGA Tour card were in a position to be more successful compared to those who played a few stages in Q School.
“In the ’80s, they used to say a player was in his prime between 30 and 40,” said Rocky Hambric, who has been a golf agent for 40 years and counts world No. 1 Dustin Johnson among his clients. “You had Mark O’Meara winning two majors in a year in his 40s. Now, it seems, there is a bigger and bigger gap between the peak of a player’s career and the senior tour.”
The youth surge has hurt veteran golfers, according to both agents and golf company executives. It used to be players on the PGA Tour could get a club deal merely on the merit of being on the tour, even if that player was older. But that’s not always the case anymore, said one executive at a major golf company.
“Now if you are calling us and your golfer is 30 years old, if you are not already with us, we are not going to bring you onboard,” the executive said.
Older, proven PGA Tour players who are in the middle class have been hurt the most by the youth movement, agents said.
“With the changing of the age and the recognition that these younger players are now the dominant players of the sport, the middle-ground PGA Tour guys who keep their cards, finish between 75 and 125 or 150 — the market there has really decreased dramatically,” Mascatello said.
Web.com Tour winners
In the five years since the elimination of the old, one-week Q School, the Web.com Tour has become the established pathway to the PGA Tour. Former Web.com Tour players now make up the majority of the PGA Tour. Three out of four PGA Tour members are former Web.com alumni. Five of the last nine FedExCup champions were Web.com alumni.
The path to the PGA Tour has clearly been established. But the change has also helped players acclimate to the lifestyle of being on tour.
Golfers must learn to plan their own schedules, and although an agent can help, they are really independent contractors running their own businesses. Spending a year on the Web.com Tour helps a player get used to a pro schedule, said Glod, the Web.com Tour president.
“It is not about necessarily playing inside the ropes,” he said. “It is all the other things a PGA Tour player has to handle. It’s how you plan your week, how you prepare. It is logistics and handling media activities.”
The change is working, said PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan.
“Players come to the PGA Tour from the Web.com Tour prepared to play at a very high level, evidenced by what we’ve seen from players like 2017 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele,” Monahan said.
Schauffele got his PGA Tour card after playing a full season on the Web.com Tour in 2016. He is 24 years old and his world ranking is No. 26. Another Web.com success story is world No. 4 Justin Thomas, who qualified for the 2015 PGA Tour by playing the Web.com Tour in 2014.
Despite the tougher endorsement market for veteran golfers, as well as those in the middle class, Mascatello said the new system may be good for the sport overall. Purses have grown on both the PGA Tour and the Web.com Tour.
“What has happened is the very elimination of the Q School, really, in a way, has done exactly what it was supposed to do, which was to identify the best players who deserve to play the tour by having a full 30-week sample size rather than a one-off,” Mascatello said. “In the one-off, you can get hot for a week or two. You can’t get hot for 30 weeks.”