'I don’t feel part of the PGA Tour': Tour's 'test dummies' lament lack of starts

'I don’t feel part of the PGA Tour': Tour's 'test dummies' lament lack of starts

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rafa Campos reached into his golf bag Tuesday morning at PGA National and pulled out a black, spiral notebook. He then lit a cigarette and began reading off a few pages.

He’s crunched some numbers.

He’s written down a few thoughts and concerns.

And his conclusion? “We worked really hard to get our job here,” said the 35-year-old Campos, who last year finished No. 30 on the Korn Ferry Tour to earn a PGA Tour card for the second time. “But we know that our chances of staying here are very unequal.”

Campos, of course, is referencing the lack of playing opportunities that so far have been afforded to the bottom half of the PGA Tour’s reorder category, which includes, in order, graduates from the DP World Tour (Nos. 2-10), Korn Ferry Tour (Nos 2-30) and Q-School (Nos. 1-5). Through this week’s Cognizant Classic in the Palm Beaches, the ninth event on this restructured PGA Tour schedule, over a dozen of these grads have gotten into just three tournaments on their priority numbers.

It’s an immediate ripple effect of sweeping changes made by the PGA Tour for this season, most notably the transformation of several events into limited-field, highly lucrative signature stops that was expected to shrink the total number of playing opportunities by about 10%. A select group of guys, however, are the ones taking the brunt of this initial wave.

“Those top-50 guys, they’re playing fields that we can’t get into, and then fields that we can get into, they’re playing those, too,” a Korn Ferry Tour graduate, who wished to remain anonymous, argued. “And it’s not their fault; I would do it if I were them. But it does make it kind of tough. I don’t know what to do. Do you play Korn Ferry? Do you try and go get a DP World start? Do you try and keep writing for these f---ing sponsor invites? I’m tired of writing for sponsor invites.

“… They’re going to tell you to play better, and I hear ya, I do. But you can’t play better if you’re not in the field.”

Scott Gutschewski is 47 years old and has 140 career PGA Tour starts under his belt. He’s familiar with this reorder territory, having played out of similar categories for much of his career, though he notes this year has been uniquely challenging – “The Tour gives you the access summaries from previous years, and you can just throw that thing away. It’s completely meaningless.” When he finished No. 28 in Korn Ferry Tour points last year, Gutschewski planned a family vacation to Hawaii that would culminate with his season debut at the Sony Open.

“It was great … other than I would’ve loved to have played at Waialae,” Gutschewski said.

Traditionally, the Sony had been an event that easily accommodated the Korn Ferry Tour grads, so much so that during last year’s Korn Ferry Tour finale at Victoria National, tour employees told some eventual graduates, though casually, that they could count on playing Sony.

The cutoff, though, ended up falling just above Patrick Fishburn, No. 19 off the Korn Ferry Tour.

The next two tournaments, American Express and Farmers, were different stories. All the Korn Ferry Tour and Q-School grads got in, though four sponsor exemptions were needed at Torrey Pines to squeeze the Q-School guys in. No one from the Korn Ferry Tour or Q-School qualified for the WM Phoenix Open on their numbers, and by the time that group arrived in Mexico last week, 14 players were making just their third starts of the season – it was Campos’ second, as he missed Palm Springs because of injury.

“All these changes, yes, they’re trying to do what’s good for everybody, but we all know it tailors only to the top players in the world, and it really did put a burden on the rest of the guys,” said Campos, who has cracked the top 40 in each of his two starts while supplementing his schedule by competing in the Korn Ferry Tour’s Astara Championship earlier this month in Colombia.

“I feel like I can be one of those top-50 guys in the world, but I need the opportunities, plain and simple. When you’re only playing a week per month not knowing when you’re playing next, and then having to put a bit of extra pressure on that week knowing that you need the points, it’s not the same as being able to have a full schedule.”

With nine of the 36 pre-playoff events in the books, the statistics are already telling. Just four players from the reorder category are currently in the top 70 of the FedExCup standings – two are DP World Tour grads, who are prioritized at the top of the category until the first (and only) reshuffle of the regular season (following the Valero Texas Open), Matthieu Pavon (1) and Sami Valimaki (35); the other two are Korn Ferry Tour grads who have won, Jake Knapp (8) and Grayson Murray (19).

Chan Kim, No. 2 from the Korn Ferry Tour, is next up at No. 74, currently out of the playoffs despite posting two finishes of T-14 or better in his first four starts. (To compare: Top-50 member Sepp Straka is No. 48 despite posting two MCs in four starts, three of them signature, and no top-25s aside from a T-12 at the small-field Sentry.)

Last season, the final season with 50 Korn Ferry Tour grads, 27 of 49 players (not counting Dean Burmester, who joined LIV) kept their cards via the top 125 (55%). Kyle Westmoreland was No. 50 in those initial priority rankings to start the wraparound season. He made six starts in the fall, missing four of six cuts, and then played six of the first nine events, including the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Through last week’s Mexico Open, just 10 of 35 Korn Ferry Tour/Q-School grads sit inside the top 125 (28%) while 11 players from that bunch have yet to earn a point.

While the PGA Tour continues to outpace its projected churn for the top 50 (currently at 40%), it’s clear that most of the players who will ultimately churn in will be from the No. 51-125 category. One Korn Ferry Tour graduate has already changed his main goal from making the playoffs to just keeping his card. Another Q-School grad said, “If one player from Q-School keeps their card, it’ll be a success.”

“The projections are off,” said Tom Whitney, who got into Cognizant as an alternate on Wednesday morning; it will be his fourth start. “It's almost like an experimental year – no data, no metrics to go off of.”

Added the Q-School grad: “We’re kind of test dummies.”

The way Campos broke it down in his notes, there are huge disparities between the amount of FedExCup points that players in different echelons can play for:

  • No. 50 from last year’s FedExCup list: 9,600 points in just the minimum 15 starts

  • No. 125 from last year’s FedExCup list: 10,600 in 23 starts

  • No. 30 from last year’s Korn Ferry Tour list: 6,400 points in 15 starts (a worst-case estimate)

“The worst thing for me are the Sunday nights when you get that text message saying your projected FedExCup, and I hate the fact that every week I’m moving back 20 spots just because I can’t play,” said Campos, who added:

“I don’t feel part of the PGA Tour, I really don’t. And that’s really depressing.”

Looking ahead, there are 17 non-major, non-signature events left before the playoffs, though five are opposite-field events with just 300 points going to those winners (signature events award 700, majors 750). At least a few more could be tough for the reorder guys, especially the co-sanctioned Genesis Scottish Open and events toward the end of the season when top-125 members are gunning for different finish lines (top 50, top 70, top 125).

“There’s going to be more pressure for guys to play more and skip less,” Whitney said. (Eric Cole, a top-50 member, took his first off week of the season last week.)

The PGA Tour, when reached by, insisted that, "From the Tour’s standpoint, the new schedule model is working." The Tour said in past years, the Korn Ferry Tour graduates had gotten into about 75% of the full-field and additional events as players in the top 125. This year, they are projecting that ratio to be 80% after approving expanded fields for the upcoming Valspar Championship, Texas Children’s Houston Open and Valero Texas Open.

"In addition to the limited field sizes, the start of the season always presents a challenge for playing opportunities," the Tour added while maintaining that it is not concerned about its projections falling short. As the Tour noted, fields at AmEx and Farmers each had more than 20 top-50 members in them and those fields fit all of the Korn Ferry Tour an Q-School grads.

Rory McIlroy, a player director on the PGA Tour’s policy board until recently, recognized the concerns of some of his fellow members.

“It's sort of hard for me to speak to it because I've fortunately never been in that position, and it's hard to sit here and be like, ‘Stay patient,’ because it's tough,” McIlroy said. “But it's supposed to be tough, I think, is the thing. It's supposed to be competitive, supposed to be cutthroat.”

Every fully exempt PGA Tour member has received a $500,000 advance this year, which for some has helped soften the blow of playing in as many Monday qualifiers as actual Tour events so far. But for these players sitting on the couch most weeks, it’s little consolation.

“I don’t play for that,” said a rookie off the Korn Ferry Tour. “Money’s awesome, don’t get me wrong. No one’s complaining about that. … But I want to play golf and I want to try and be one of the best golfers in the world. I don’t know if I’m there yet, but this is how you get there. And $500,000 doesn’t help my world ranking, doesn’t help me get points, doesn’t help me keep my card, doesn’t help me make birdies.”

As for solutions if Year 1 doesn't meet the Tour's expectations, with so much continuing to evolve in professional golf, most brainstorming right now could prove to be a wasted effort. But that hasn’t stopped some players from wondering if there is a band-aid.

One quick fix, presented by Gutschewski and a few others, is to expand the fields of the signature events to at least 100 competitors, forcing players to make a meaningful cut to earn points and eliminating what’s become built-in off-weeks for many in the Nos. 51-125 category. That option could have a trickle-down effect for the reorder group.

It's more likely, though, that nothing happens – at least this year, which puts the onus on the grads: Be ready to play good golf.

“I’m hoping that we look back in August and this doesn’t matter,” veteran Josh Teater said. “You want to have all the great players playing together, that’s for sure. But how it’s all going to pan out? I don’t know. It could be great for the top and who knows about the rest of us, but I hope they keep us in mind.”