published Monday, March 26th, 2012

Q-school to toughen test

The Masters begins in less than two weeks.

Local professional golfers such as Paul Apyan, Derek Rende and Bryce Ledford would love to be playing in the tournament. But they won't be on the grounds unless they have the required patron credentials.

The Masters is a sacred tournament.

The PGA Tour is in the process of making all of its tournaments almost as exclusive. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem proposed last week drastic changes to qualifying school which lengthens the road that golfers must make to earn PGA Tour cards.

"It's weird that they took away the dream," said Ledford, who played at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and has been playing in mini-tour events for the past five summers. "I still think they have to do some tweaking."

The current route to the PGA Tour is by finishing in the top 25 on the Nationwide Tour money list, or by finishing in the top 25 at the final stage of Q-School.

That's how it will be for this year. But not next year.

Finchem's proposal takes the top 75 on the Nationwide Tour, those who finish No. 126 through 200 on the PGA Tour and have them play in a three-tournament series. Then Q-school would only grant status to the Nationwide Tour -- which will be losing Nationwide insurance as its sponsor at the end of the year.

"The changes are definitely going to make it harder for the college guys to come out and play on the PGA Tour," former Baylor school golfer Harris English told ESPN.com.

"I guess for those college guys, knowing that they aren't going to be on the PGA tour," said English who earned PGA Tour status at Q-school last fall, "it will give them a chance to figure some stuff out for a least a year, and when they come on tour, they will be a little bit stronger player."

The current Q-school is a three-stage event with the final stage being a 108-hole tournament. Those who survive play the next season on the PGA Tour -- at least early on.

The new proposal would have had sent last fall's graduates to the Nationwide Tour's Chitimacha Classic where they would be playing in the Chitimacha Classic instead of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

"The dream is still there, the routing of getting there has changed," said Apyan, who prepped at Hixson and played at Southern Mississippi. "It takes that small percentage of going through Q-school out of the question."

But there are guys who have graduated from Q-school and become stars on the PGA Tour -- Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson are prime examples.

Who's to say that can't be Ledford, Rende or any of the other professionals with close Chattanooga connections. Chattanooga will have a contingent of five golfers playing the next two weeks in Hooters Tour events.

"If a guy is good enough out of college to make the tour, then I think he ought to have the opportunity," said Mocs coach Mark Guhne, who has at least seven former Mocs playing various professional tours. "I have a hard time telling a guy he can't have his job at the top level if he's good enough to beat them."

The proposal doesn't sit well with Rende, who prepped at Soddy-Daisy and led UTC to its first No. 1 ranking in school history back in 2008.

"It's crazy that if you finish No. 1 on the Nationwide Tour money list that you get thrown into a tournament with Mr. 199 on the PGA Tour money list," said Rende, a former Moc who turned pro in 2010. "If you're No. 1 and have a bad stretch or an injury at the end of the year, then ya know, you go back to the Nationwide even though that guys has played more consistently through the entire year."

But Rende, Apyan, Ledford as well as Jonathan Hodge and Andrew Black and every other mini-tour player know they have one more traditional Q-School.

They have one more shot at the quickest trip to the PGA Tour.

"They'll still hand out 25 PGA Tour cards at the end of this year and I'm going to prepare myself for that," Rende said. "If you play good, it will happen."

about David Uchiyama...

David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...

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