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Q-School facing downgrade; This is final year to earn Tour card

"Glory's Last Shot" is the nickname given to the PGA Championship, the last major tournament of the year on the PGA Tour schedule.

This year, though, it fits much better in describing "Q-School," the grueling qualifying process players must endure to earn membership on the PGA Tour.

That's because the 2012 version of Q-School will be the last one to offer a tour card as a reward.

During a news conference last month at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem announced a dramatic overhaul to the way golfers qualify for the sport's biggest stage. Starting in the 2013 season, Q-School will offer only Nationwide Tour cards, a spot in the sport's version of Triple-A.

So how will golfers reach the big leagues? Details are still sketchy. What is known is that three weeks of tournaments will be held at the end of the Nationwide Tour season. Those tournaments will feature the players who finished 1-75 on the Nationwide Tour money list and the players who finished 126-200 on the PGA Tour money list. Of those 150 players, 50 will earn PGA Tour cards for the following season.

How players will be seeded for what amounts to a three-week audition must be decided.

"Anytime you make a change, human nature is to ask: Why are we changing? If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Finchem said last month in making the announcement. "There's another way to look at things -- that when things are going pretty well, that's the time to get better. That's the philosophy we have embraced."

Whether things will be better is very much up for debate.

Q-School, especially its final six-round tournament, has earned its spot in sports lore. Thousands of players set out each year -- spending thousands of dollars -- to chase one of the 25 or so spots that are annually up for grabs. The system, which has become famous for the drama it produces (spots on the tour sometimes decided by a single putt dropping), has been in place since 1965.

The biggest reason cited for the change by Tour officials is their belief that Nationwide Tour graduates will be better prepared for life on the PGA Tour after spending a year in tournament conditions.

"I think the decision by the policy board is recognition of the historical performance of the Nationwide Tour in player development -- developing elite players to the PGA Tour level," Finchem said.

However, there is not overwhelming evidence to support that theory. In a column filed in January, columnist Scott Michaux of the Augusta Chronicle pointed out that Nationwide Tour graduates had a 35.2 percent retention rate (players who kept their cards) on the PGA Tour from 2001 to 2010, compared to a 29 percent rate for those who joined the Tour through Q-School.

That means a Nationwide graduate's odds of success are better, but far from guaranteed.

Local golfers had differing reactions on the rules changes.

"I think it's pretty fair," said Jake Katz, the Williamsville North graduate who is living in Florida while he pursues a pro career. "It [stinks] for people like me, but I can understand why they'd want to try and grow the game a little bit more."

Katz is a Q-School veteran, having advanced to the second stage (of three) last September. He'll attempt to gain his card again this year.

"I was planning to give myself three Q-Schools, and I know this is the last one I'll have a chance to get right on the PGA Tour," he said.

One of Katz's biggest rivals from last season's amateur play in the Buffalo District Golf Association, Chris Covelli, is also planning to take a run at Q-School after the summer. He was disappointed to hear of the changes.

"I'm not the biggest fan of it," he said. "I can see where they're coming from with a year of added prep work [on the Nationwide Tour], but there's so many stories of kids who didn't need that year and are doing really well on Tour.

"It's definitely added motivation. If you get hot for those few months while Q-School's going on, you can certainly make it all the way through and then you're on the PGA Tour. Anything can happen."

One need only to look at the story of PGA Tour rookie John Huh. He finished 8-under after the grueling six rounds of the final stage, getting his card. Huh's played in nine events on the PGA Tour this season, earning almost $1.2 million and ranking 15th on the money list.

If Katz or Covelli were to earn their Tour card for 2013, they'd be doing it in a year in which it will be difficult to keep it. That's because as another part of the Tour's revamping, the tournament schedule will no longer follow the calendar year.

Starting in 2013, the events once known as the Fall Series will be the start of the new Tour season. That means fewer events in which players can accrue money. The top 125 players on the Tour money list keep their card the following season.

"A lot of guys in my situation and even kids in college who are definitely doing it for a living after they get out, don't like the change, but luckily [on] the Nationwide Tour, those guys are making some serious money now," Covelli said. "It's not like you can't make a nice living doing that."