Rabbit road on the PGA Tour is winding down toward a dead end and no one is happier about it than the rabbits.
Beginning next year, qualifiers, or "rabbits," no longer will have to play through a pretournament Monday round to gain entry to the main field. Instead, the PGA Tour will have an all-exempt tour consisting of the game's top 125 money winners, plus an additional 50 slots available to those who finish at the top of the tour's qualifying school.
When fewer than 156 members of this group elect not to play on any given week, tournament directors will be able to complete the field at their discretion. That could mean a local pro or amateur, or an older player, a box-office draw if you wish, who wouldn't otherwise qualify.
Presently, the rabbits fill out the field after exempt players sign up and the tournament director uses his 10 exemptions. Yesterday, 82 rabbits played for the 23 spots remaining in the Kemper. At one tournament this year more than 100 rabbits tried to qualify for only six available places.
What the new all-exempt tour will do, according to some of those players attempting to qualify for the Kemper yesterday, is:
Reduce pressure, so young players can play more to their potential.
Reduce expenses, so a player doesn't have to travel to a different city each week to play on Monday in hopes of making the main field, giving him a chance to make the 36-hole cut and earn a check.
Force some players into another profession.
Yet, there were no complaints about the change yesterday.
"We were 15 years behind the times. This was a necessity," said Butch Baird, a 23-year veteran of the tour.
Baird shot a one-over-par 73 yesterday, but had to settle for the first alternate's place after a playoff. So he will not get in the main draw unless someone withdraws before Thursday.
"It costs me at least $1,000 a week just to live this way and that's not even thinking about Sunday night, if you get as far as Sunday night. I'm sure the economy has something to do with this move," Baird said. "I have heard rumbles from people, saying there will be a problem with this, but I say, 'Let your golf clubs speak for themselves, and if they aren't speaking loud enough, get out.' "
Jeff Sanders is just finishing his first year on the tour. He has been qualifying all that time and so is used to spending Mondays chasing a spot in a tournament.
"Qualifying is mostly mental and once the burden of that is lifted I think a lot of guys who had to qualify won't have to think about it any more and will play to a higher level," said Sanders. "The mental battle is the big difference between a lot of players. The ones who remember their failures tend not to make the cut, the confident ones just go on. It takes so much positive thinking to keep on qualifying."
Sanders, 26, from Portland, Ore., has won $4,222. He shot 72 yesterday.
"The current system is ridiculous," said Bill Calfee, a University of Maryland graduate who joined the tour 10 years ago. "You can't make any plans this way."
He missed again yesterday, shooting 76, but he sees only advantages in the new system that the players devised.
"It will upgrade the quality of golf," he said. "There are still basically 200 guys on the tour with plenty of access for young guys and, yet, the entry will be challenging enough."
Al Morton of Washington shot a 75 yesterday that kept him out of the tournament. Obviously disappointed, he still says the new rule makes sense, although the tour will lose a lot of players. "I think we won't see as many unknowns make it to the top," he said. "This is mostly for tournament sponsors, maybe, who want to know who will be in their fields."
Morton has had problems making the cut, but is determined to use the next six months to finish among the top 125 money winners and make it onto the all-exempt tour.
The main concern for the rabbits seems to be economic.
"The fact is, a guy has to travel and spend his own money," said Glenn Tait, a PGA tournament official. "For a lot of young kids, the new rule will help them save a lot of money. I do have mixed emotions about losing the local color, but one reason for the change is to enhance the tournaments and give sponsors a better field.
"Today, the problem is toughest for those poor guys (the rabbits) out there. Everything hinges on what they do today. And tonight, some of them will head for another tournament, where maybe they'll qualify, and maybe they won't."
Sanders hopes the all-exempt tour next year will be better overall for everyone, but mostly for the players.
"It will be easier to pick your tournaments, to see where you'd like to play," he said. "It'll be a lot better than spending seven or eight weeks out here wondering. If you want to take a vacation, you can take a vacation. Nobody here can dot that now."