In each of the last three years, the PGA Tour had either bought and branded or partnered to create a regional developmental tour that will feed into its burgeoning umbrella.
First, it was effectively taking over the Tour de las Americas to form PGA Tour Latinoamerica in 2011. Last year, the PGA Tour acquired the Canadian Tour, renaming it PGA Tour Canada. On Sunday, commissioner Tim Finchem announced the formation of PGA Tour China, working with the China Golf Association to develop a 12-tournament series in the world’s most-populous country in 2014.
The visceral reaction from a number of people on my social media channels was patriotic: When is the PGA Tour going to do something to help developmental golf in America? Fair enough.
Obviously the PGA Tour runs two other domestic tours: the Web.com Tour and Champions Tour. The whole business makes a lot of money, which is precisely why Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) wants to end the PGA Tour’s tax exemption because of its not-for-profit qualification.
But, the PGA Tour sure could help that tax problem — and help secure its status as a trade group — if it made a more substantial and transparent investment in the development of professional golfers at that C-level. (The PGA Tour is the A-level, with the Web.com Tour at the A-minus-to-B level.)
Unlike most other golfing powers in the world, the United States doesn’t have a truly significant national program. There is a USA Golf, as well the USGA and PGA of America, but none are truly in the business of identifying and developing the next generation of top-tier players. That’s left to, more or less, private enterprise. Golf programs run at courses and country clubs, junior tours like the AJGA and collegiate golf problems do the bulk of the heavy lifting. There are high schools like the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., which foster a competitive academic and athletic environment in which students are given the resources to succeed at the sport of their choice — of course, for a lofty fee their parents pay.
All of these groups help develop not only players’ skills, but prepare them for life as a touring professional. But golf is sink-or-swim, and the American golf development infrastructure provides varying degrees of swimmies as these players come along and move through their doors.
What happens when these players don’t find immediate success at the professional level like they have at the junior and collegiate levels?
A lot of guys — a small sliver that have turned out to be very successful PGA Tour players — turn to mini-tours. They are essentially forms of legalized gambling, with players ponying up most, if not all, of the money themselves. It’s a traveling poker game. The money can help sustain a player as they take that next shot at getting under the PGA Tour umbrella, now relegating to hopping onto the Web.com Tour through Q-school. The miracle leap from living in a van to a private jet is almost impossible to make now.
Maybe that’s part of the point of the PGA Tour’s expansion into Canada, Latin America and China. The PGA Tour has created a defined set of paths to the PGA Tour. Get there through the feeder tours to the Web.com Tour to the Web.com Tour Finals to the PGA Tour. Or get through Q-school to the Web.com Tour to the Web.com Tour Finals to the PGA Tour. Barring the rare Monday qualifying success on either the Web.com Tour or PGA Tour (hi, Patrick Reed), it’s hard for an American player to circumvent that process without a healthy amount of sponsor’s exemptions and chances to play without grinding out a place on a tour.
And that’s where the likes of Peter Uihlein and Brooks Koepka are fighting the power. Both have hopped into the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking by playing their way through the European Tour’s two-tier system. Each made their way through the European Challenge Tour before graduating to the European Tour. They traveled the world instead of the southeastern U.S. to play a developmental tour. They learned to win. Now they’re important young names in American golf — by playing abroad.
So, then, why wouldn’t the PGA Tour benefit from creating the golf equivalent of Single A baseball? Or call it High A. Take the layer of player that isn’t quite the cream of the collegiate crop and give them a place to play. The purses can be small, like on PGA Tour Canada/Latinoamerica/China. It will help keep promising players here in the U.S. and allow the PGA Tour to market them through their very wide channels to reach golf fans.
It is a risk to cede a complete monopoly on American professional golf to the PGA Tour, but that may be the best way to foster a healthy environment for the fledgling professional to take their shot at the big time.