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Golf Q-School's zero-to-hero chances could be dashed by format change

Mention the phrase 'Qualifying School' to a golfer and, more often than not, you'll be greeted with the kind of horrified glare that's usually reserved for a gaping leg wound.

European Tour rookie Branden Grace of South Africa has seemingly come from nowhere to become a double title-holder. Picture: Getty
European Tour rookie Branden Grace of South Africa has seemingly come from nowhere to become a double title-holder. Picture: Getty

Utter those same words across the Atlantic at the moment, though, and there's a good chance the response will be one of nostalgia and misty-eyed sentiment.

Those sunny serenaders, the Beach Boys, may not have been renowned for their golfing prowess but their jaunty old number Be True To Your School could be used as a fitting soundtrack to the current shenanigans taking place within the PGA Tour.

The three-stage Q-School has been a path towards the main US circuit since 1965 but, in a potentially radical overhaul, the powers that be are pondering a move which could wipe the process from the map in terms of earning a golden ticket to the tour.

The plan is for the top 75 players from the Nationwide Tour, the second-tier circuit which provided the route to the top for Scottish duo Martin Laird and Russell Knox, and the top 75 players who failed to keep their cards on the main tour (126 and below on the money list) to play a three-tournament mini-series.

The leading 50 players after that shoot-out would earn tour cards, while the rest would have the option of going back to a lesser Qualifying School, where only Nationwide Tour status would be available. Currently, the top 25 on the final Nationwide Tour rankings earn promotion into the upper echelons.

The motion is quite revolutionary and, argue some critics, driven by commercial interests. Nationwide is due to end its sponsorship of the second-division tour at the end of 2012 and the proposed make-or-break trio of tournaments is being viewed as more attractive to potential backers.

Yet, do away with a proper Q-School and there's a feeling that you lose some of the romance from the game; that rags to riches element where a nobody gets the opportunity to become a somebody. It's one of the great democratic processes in sport. You pay your entry then try to achieve the ultimate dream through the arduous route of a four-round first stage, a four-round second stage and a six-round final. And at the end of all of that, there are only 25 players who make it to the promised land of the PGA Tour.

Every year, a giddy mix of amateurs and club professionals gladly fork out the $2500 admission fee (£1350 for the European Tour's similar process over here) in the hope of striking it rich. Admittedly, the vast majority have as much chance of earning a tour card as Monty does of appearing on Britain's Next Supermodel but take away hope and opportunity and you take away much of what keeps driving on players. Everyone has ambitions, no matter how fanciful they may be.

There is also the debate that it will end the hopes of a young player going straight to the PGA circuit from America's much-lauded college system. The likes of Dustin Johnson and JB Holmes went from Q-School graduates to tour winners within a year, while Rickie Fowler survived the scramble and ended up playing in a Ryder Cup. Back in 2001, Luke Donald, the world No.1, passed the qualifying examination and went on to win the Southern Farm Bureau Classic during his rookie season among the elite.

On this side of the pond, Mike Stewart, the Inverness man who is the director of the European Tour's Q-School operation, admits that the US proposal is "a radical change" but sees no reason to alter the European approach apart from the odd tweak that can "create as much opportunity and as equitable a system as possible".

The Come All Ye feel of the Q-School gives it that uniqueness and, despite the tension and anguish it can breed, it still provides career-changing possibilities. Branden Grace finished 11th in the European final in December to earn one of the 30 cards on offer. Less than one month later, the South African had won the Joburg Open and the Volvo Champions titles in successive weeks. "It's a dream come true," he said. And without those dreams what have you got? God Only Knows, as the Beach Boys may have harmonised in the locker room.

AND ANOTHER THING

Talking of golfing dreams, Robert Rock's valiant triumph over Woods, McIlroy and others in Abu Dhabi on Sunday was certainly uplifting stuff.

Back in 2001, the year Woods racked up his sixth major title, Rock, a canny Midlander playing out of the intriguingly titled Swingers Driving Range as a PGA pro, shared second place behind Ross Drummond in the Tartan Tour's now-defunct Sunderland of Scotland Masters at Irvine.

A decade on, the 34-year-old is now 55th in the world and 10th on the Ryder Cup points list. For club professionals everywhere, Rock's rise is truly inspirational.

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