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Q School - Not Exactly the Little Red Schoolhouse!

By John M. Ross,
Q School Confidential
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The number of golfers who fantasize about playing the PGA Tour one day very likely is topped only by those who dream of turning that one-dollar lottery ticket into a million-dollar fortune. The glimmer of hope burns constantly for them, and there's hardly a chance their ranks will ever thin.

The dream sequence begins when the golfer is halfway through his third bucket of balls at the range, and the way he's hitting his select targets he just knows they don't do it much better than that on the tour. For a brief instant, he can hear the generous applause of the gallery on his way back to the clubhouse, and as he settles on his stool in the grill, the whole tournament scene comes to life.

There's the tournament's courtesy car, with a pretty volunteer at the wheel, taking him back to the hotel after a day's play. And the pro-am parties at the club, and the interviews on TV and a chance to go one-on-one with his long-time hero, Johnny Miller. Then, best of all, the awards ceremony, and getting that giant cardboard check, with all those lovely numbers after the dollar sign. What a life!

Hopefully, no one will show that dreamer a new book in the stalls that could douse that dream with a large bucket of chilly water. Taking dead-aim at the golfer who aspires to make the tour one day, "Q School Confidential" (St. Martin's Press, New York) examines the ordeal aspirants must overcome before reaching the promised land.

The author, David Gould, a former golf editor, weaves a fascinating fabric of the emotional stress, raw drama, humor, and dog-eat-dog competition that the school presents to the hopefuls. But Gould's sub-title on the book jacket, "Inside Golf's Cruelest Tournament," is a bit overstated. It very likely is the game's most challenging test, but other than the fact that a loss here can thwart a budding career, it is not cruel in the truest sense.

But it CAN be painful!

There is nothing quite like the Q School in the field of sport, and it is still another factor that separates golf from the others. It was put in place in 1965 by the PGA to provide a steady flow of quality talent to the PGA Tour, and to provide some assurance that the proper level of competition is maintained. It had the cumbersome name of the PGA Tournament Training and Qualifying Program at the outset, but it was quickly shortened to the Qualifying School, and then simply to Q School. And the mere mention of those two words to some Tour members - and others who are not - could trigger a kind of trauma.

As Gould tells it, the Q School "screen-tests golf's newcomers, but it also acts as a reform school for old delinquents. To appreciate how festive and fun a PGA Tour stop is, you have to watch the tour's cast-off veterans and aspiring rookies trudge through the annual 108-hole qualifier in December. Tour school is young families in motel rooms waiting for Dad to shoot two strokes better than a pack of guys who have equal ability, in which case their family might live in semi-comfort for the next 12 months. It's a steady drip-drip-drip of athletic pressure, dreams dissolving here, dreams coming true over there."

Actually, the schedule for the qualifiers for the PGA Tour and its prep school counterpart, the Buy.com Tour (formerly the Nike Tour) begins in mid-October, and is played in three stages. The first stage tees it up at eight sites, the second at six, and the final is at the Jack Nicklaus course at the PGA West in California. The schedule has varied over the years, as has the number of entries and the total playing cards awarded. At one time there was a school in the spring and another in the fall, and the entries as low as 49. In recent years, the number of applicants has averaged around 1,200, with the qualifiers ranging between 40 and 50 - less than one out of 20.

The Q School was instrumental in eliminating the Monday qualifying process, which, until 1983, was held prior to every PGA Tour event. This was an aggravating procedure for the aspiring tour pro. He had to travel to the site, often at substantial expense, take a shot at the Monday all-or-nothing, and then wait for the next Monday if he missed. The all-exempt Tour started in 1983, and was immediately more efficient and stabilizing. Tournament lineups were filled from the 125 top money winners and the qualifiers from Q School and the 15 leading players from the Buy.com Tour money list.

In "Q School Confidential," author Gould has painstakingly gathered a series of vignettes and anecdotes that dot the history of this unique procedure. And many of them spin out of the six rounds of pressure-packed golf on which so many dreams - and careers - hang precariously. Some will make you laugh and others might be reason for a tear - especially for the fellow who triumphantly passes the 108-hole test, earns his card, and then has to surrender it at the end of the first year.

In underscoring the precarious course of the tour pro, Gould points to the lawyer who takes and passes his bar exam and is a barrister for life. The tour pro can succeed in his test at Q School, but that's only good for a one-year career. If he doesn't attain performance standards on the Tour - like reaching at least 125th on the money list, or some other qualifying level, he's out of action. And if he still wants to play the tour, he has to go back through Q School again.

Some come away from the thoroughly draining experience swearing they'll never go through it again. And then there's Mac O'Grady. He's known as Mr. Perseverance, and holds the Tour record for having attended 17 - yes, 17 - Q Schools. And failed 16. Lucky for him, there were two schools a year at the time, so it only took him 10-plus years to get his card in 1982 - and only about six years on the tour to reach his first million.

"I never gave up dreaming," he reflects. "And in my dreams I was beating everyone. But then, the sun came up in the morning."

The results of Q School aren't always an accurate indication of things to come. For instance, a majority of the school's medalists who led their school classes haven't had leadership roles in the years that followed. There are some exceptions, of course, like Paul Azinger, Fuzzy Zoeller, and Ben Crenshaw. Jerry Pate was a medalist, too, but a series of injuries shortened his career after he won the U.S. Open.

The book's complete list of the qualifiers in all the Q Schools since the beginning in 1965 is fascinating reading in itself and the source of numerous surprises, like Butch Harmon, Tiger Woods' coach, finishing next to last in his class.

Gould might have closed with: "A player who survives Q Schools learns about his talent, his heart and his nerves."

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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