There is something ironic about the fact the European Tour’s DP World Tour Championship and its Final Qualifying School are staged during the same week in mid-November because in most other ways the two events could hardly be more different.
At the former there was a group of 60 millionaires playing for a $8 million prize purse and another seven figure bonus pool while at the latter a disparate group of journeymen and wannabes were battling it out for peanuts with their future livelihoods very much at stake.
There will always be winners and losers in all aspects of life but the gap between the haves and the have-nots on the European Tour is now unhealthily large and there is evidence to suggest it is widening.
On November 16 Florida-based Englishman Sam Horsfield led a group of 33 players who celebrated earning Category 17 membership of the European Tour at the Q-School but the chances of more than a handful of them making to all the way to next year’s Tour grand finale are slim.
Indeed, if this year’s numbers are anything to go, by the vast majority of the 2017 graduates will be back at Q-School in 12 months’ time trying to regain their playing privileges.
The European Tour’s own statistics show that between 2005 and 2016 the highest number of Tour graduates to retain their cards was 12 and the lowest was five. This year the number of survivors hit an all-time low with Eddie Pepperell, Edoardo Molinari and Ashley Chesters being the only three of the 30 2016 Q-School graduates able to win enough prize money to retain their cards.
It’s easy to see why there was not more.
The Tour’s new Rolex Series has proved hugely lucrative for the top players but the problem is that it has created a two-tier tour structure in which those with access to these $7-$8 million events can thrive while their lower-ranked colleagues are left on the outside looking in desperately scrambling to keep their cards by playing almost exclusively only in the $2-3 million tournaments they have access to.
To be fair to the Tour, they foresaw this problem which is why at the start of the 2017 season they decided cut the number of players who kept their cards via the Race to Dubai Ranking from 110 to 100 and instead introduce an Access List, which ran concurrently with the Race to Dubai, but which excluded money earned at the most lucrative tournaments (the Rolex Series event, the Masters, the USPGA and the four World Golf Championship).
It was an interesting idea but it did not work and in 2018 the Access List will be replaced by another new system which sees a return to the top 110 players on the Race to Dubai ranking retaining their cards.
To reward good form, Tour School graduates will also be re-ranked twice (in May and June) rather than once as previously and, additionally, from the BMW International Open onwards, up to and including the Andalucia Masters, in all regular European Tour tournaments there will be a spot held back for “the leading player not otherwise exempt from within the top 110 of the current Race to Dubai Rankings”.
This is the latest attempt by the Tour to create a more level playing field for the Q-School graduates but surely, short of a major membership restructure, the only effective way to do that is to reduce the massive discrepancy between the prize money on offer at the Rolex Series events and the other tournaments on the schedule.
However, quite how they can accomplish that is far from clear and, until that happens, my advice to the players who earned Category 17 European Tour membership at the recent Q-School is to hit the ground running. Those that made the top-10 in Spain this yearned to stay there. The others who did not have to move up the ranking to have any chance of getting into the big events.
That is the key to survival. It always was, but it is even more important now as the vast majority of the Class of 2016 found to their cost.