The Nationwide Tour is golf’s equivalent to AAA minor league baseball. It’s one step below the big leagues – in this case, the PGA Tour. Also similar to Triple-A ball, the tour includes young, developing players trying to advance to the big stage, plus older, ex-big league players hoping for another chance at glory. Although every Nationwide Tour player’s goal is to reach the PGA Tour, playing on the No. 2 circuit is hardly minor league – at least for the top players. J.J. Killeen earned $414,273 as the Nationwide Tour’s top money-winner in 2011, and 20 other players earned at least $200,000.
Apply for the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, commonly known as “Q-School.” Applications are available on the PGA Tour website (see References). Without an exemption, Q-School is an expensive, rigorous, four-step process through which a golfer can earn a PGA Tour card or Nationwide Tour card. Total entry fees for all four stages are more than $10,000, although the top 50 finishers in the final stage of Q-School earned prize money of up to $50,000 in 2011.
Proceed through the first three qualifying stages – Pre-Qualifying, First Qualifying Stage and Second Qualifying Stage. All three stages are 72-hole tournaments in which a set percentage of entrants with the best scores advance to the next stage. The percentages are set each year based on the number of entrants. A field of approximately 78 golfers will compete at each qualifying site, with a total of approximately 450 golfers at all the Second Qualifying sites combined.
Play in the Final Qualifying Stage, a six-day, 108-hole marathon with approximately 156 players. The field includes players from the previous season’s PGA and Nationwide tours who didn’t earn enough money to maintain an exemption for the following season. The top 25 finishers, plus ties, at Q-School's final stage earn PGA Tour cards for the upcoming year. The next 50 or so players (depending on tied scores) receive Nationwide Tour cards for the upcoming season.
Play in an open qualifying competition for a specific Nationwide Tour event. Those players who don't make it through Q-School can play in qualifiers that are open to professionals and amateurs with a USGA handicap 2 or less. Typically, there are 14 spots available in open qualifiers at each Nationwide Tour event. The 18-hole qualifiers are generally held the Monday preceding that week's Nationwide Tour event.