Keita Nakajima took a break from staring at all the menu options in a coffee shop down the street from Royal Liverpool and began contemplating his next move in golf.
Nakajima, who broke Jon Rahm’s record for most weeks (87) as the No. 1 amateur in the world, is in a tight race for the Japan Golf Tour money title with Takumi Kanaya. The top three get European tour cards. The leading player can go to final stage of Q-school on the PGA Tour, which at least assures a level Korn Ferry Tour status.
His question that day in July: “Is it better to play DP World Tour or Korn Ferry Tour?” he said. Nakajima wants to follow in the steps of Hideki Matsuyama, except that he considers conversational English a priority.
The money is better on the European tour — roughly three times higher, including the Rolex Series events — the travel is more extensive and the variety of golf is far greater on a tour that goes to two dozen countries. Only the leading 10 players from the Race to Dubai not already exempt can earn PGA Tour cards. That’s where Nakajima eventually wants to be.
The travel is easier and the fields are not as strong on the Korn Ferry Tour, though the top 30 players go straight to the PGA Tour.
It’s like that all over the world golf, with most paths — but not all — pointing to the PGA Tour, even if it’s not exactly on a straight line.
Where to go? How to get there?
Answers will start coming after the season ends within the next month.
The European tour has two events left to determine the top 10 players who have access to PGA Tour cards for 2024.
Adrian Meronk and Ryan Fox are among those locked in. Ryo Hisatsune of Japan is holding down the 10th spot. He turned down his spot on the PGA Tour in Mexico this week so as not to jeopardize his chances at a full card.
The real choices confront PGA Tour players who have three tournaments left to make sure they finish in the top 125 in the FedEx Cup and keep full cards.
Chesson Hadley seems to live on that bubble, and he’s at No. 122. On the outside are the likes of Patton Kizzire and Russell Knox. Those beyond No. 150 don’t even get conditional status. That’s where Jason Dufner and Ryan Palmer currently reside.
Typically they would get in to whatever PGA Tour events had room for them (usually the ones the stars don’t play) or try slugging it out on the Korn Ferry Tour with power-hitting, pin-seeking flat bellies.
Now there’s another option. The European tour is offering membership to any PGA Tour player who finishes from No. 126 to 200, with a caveat — no more than five such players can play in any given week on the European tour.
But for the leading guys, it’s an interesting prospect because it would offer a full, consistent schedule. Also appealing is the longtime debate over the strength of the tours. Ten players get cards. If Europe is so easy, this would be a time for some Americans to prove it.
Not to be overlooked is the option of LIV Golf.
The Saudi-funded league already is making plans for 2024 and beyond and there’s still no telling how the PGA Tour’s proposed commercial venture with Saudi Arabia’s national wealth fund will affect that, if the deal even gets completed.
But first is “LIV Golf Promotions,” a 72-hole qualifying event — yes, 72 holes! — over three days on Dec. 8-10 in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates capital. That will decide which three players can join LIV Golf League in 2024 and get drafted by the likes of Iron Heads or Smash or HyFlyers.
The qualifier is open to just about anyone interested, from elite amateurs (such as Walker Cup players) to Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup players over the last five years. Yes, that makes even Tiger Woods eligible.
Who actually wants to play is another story.
LIV Golf leader Greg Norman says he’s had several conversations with players interested in joining LIV, though he said that a year ago and got only the B-list at best. And it’s unlikely any top player would join given the $20 million purses on the PGA Tour and the lack of world ranking points (and access to majors) on LIV.
For those who no longer have cards, or might be disgruntled about a PGA Tour that is increasingly divided between the stars and those stuck with playing for only $8 million in prize money, it’s an option to consider.
That option worked out well for Talor Gooch when LIV began. Gooch had one win against a weak field in the fall and had just cracked the top 50 in the world. Now he has raked in over $45 million in two short seasons.
And it worked out for Eugenio Chacarra, who left Oklahoma State for LIV and has one win on the LIV Golf circuit, one on the Asian Tour and more than $10 million in two seasons.
Neither is in the the majors next year unless he goes through qualifying for the Opens. That’s the tradeoff for playing a league that guarantees over $1.5 million for finishing last every week.
For players struggling to make the Korn Ferry Tour, for those fresh out of college, for PGA Tour players who grind every year just to keep their cards, is it worth going to Abu Dhabi in December for a chance to join LIV?
The PGA Tour is unlikely to suspend anyone who tries because a qualifying tournament would not be the same as an official LIV event (though they would still need a media release).
These are the options to sort through. Go through Europe. Roll the dice through a limited schedule. Spend a year in what amounts to the minor leagues. Seek guaranteed cash with LIV. The options have rarely been this varied. The game is only getting harder.