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Getting on the PGA Tour Is No Piece of Cake!

By John M. Ross,
Bob May
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Bob May at the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla. (PGA of America)

The PGA Qualifying School has turned out another enthusiastic class of hopefuls for the new Tiger Chase. The Class of 2000, survivors of one of the most grueling examinations in sport, includes 17 rookies, 12 international players, and seven who have previously played the tour. And the game's officials and fans alike are hoping that one or more of the 36 who came through the PGA's ultimate stress test will be able to crack Tiger Woods' high-handed rule.

The chances of this happening aren't glittering. Last year's Q-school class had only one win and three runner-up finishes during Woods' rampage through the 2000 schedule. But even more impressive than Michael Clark's triumph in the John Deere Classic, was the near-upset by Bob May in the PGA Championship. May, who, like Woods, came out of the California junior program, lost in a playoff to Tiger for the big prize, but he had the gallery wildly urging him on.

May had the lead until the 17th, and he saved the tie with a heroic putt on the 18th. That gave him three straight rounds of 66, but it wasn't enough. Tiger got him with a 20-foot snake on the first playoff hole.

He didn't get the trophy or the big check, but Woods paid him a compliment he'll remember forever. "That was as good as it gets," he declared.

May's $1.5 million was the top prize money earned by a Class of 1999 member, but almost half the class took home $300,000 or more. Does that explain why these fellows are willing to endure the agony of Q-School qualifying?

Of course the annual shootout for access to the PGA Tour produces more drama and emotion than any other event on the schedule. That's understandable. Careers are at stake, and even a missed putt can be enough to sidetrack a hopeful for another full year. This was the case of Tim O'Neal, 27, of Savannah, Ga. He had been under par for every round of the 108-hole final event and with only two holes to play, a tour card was almost a sure thing.

Indeed, even if he finished bogey-bogey, he'd slip into the final qualifying spot.

The excitement and the anticipation undoubtedly took over at this point and O'Neal stumbled to the finish line with bogey-triple bogey, missing his card by two shots. But he'll be able to play the Buy.Com Tour, which preps the players for the Big Dance.

Also caught up in a nail-biting drama were David Gossett, 21, the 1999 U.S. Amateur champion, and his family. The reigning amateur kings always get careful attention at the Q-School tests, and Gossett was getting more than his share as he wobbled through the early rounds. His second round 76 left him far down the list in 129th place, and sent his father into action.

Larry Gossett, a commercial airline pilot, called his wife at their home in Tennessee and suggested that she hightail it out to California to the tournament and see if she could steady their boy. She agreed.

Young Gossett had turned pro in July after finishing his sophomore year at the University of Texas and the surprise appearance of his Mom worked like a shot of adrenaline. After a dinner and a chat the night before, Gossett fired an all-time Q-School record 59 in the fourth round and soared into 29th place. He also scored the first hole-in-one in competition.

The happy ending? Not really. Gossett followed the 59 with 74-71, causing him to miss the magic cut by four shots. But, like O'Neal, he'll get his card for the Buy.Com Tour, and as the Amateur Champion he'll undoubtedly receive numerous sponsor exemptions for the big tour during the year.

Also in the spotlight and caught up in the drama at the PGA West course was Casey Martin, who has been winning his battle to use a golf cart during tournament play because of disabled legs. He had to go to Q-School in an effort to regain his playing card after finishing 179th on the PGA money list this year.

Sitting precariously on the cut line throughout the final six rounds, Martin's fickle putter finally did him in and he missed qualifying by one stroke. A dazzling 40-foot putt on the final gave the gallery a thrill, but for Martin it was too little too late. He, too, will play the Buy.Com Tour, but before he tees off there, he will appear before the U.S. Supreme Court in still one more effort to preserve his right to use a cart during tournament play.

The PGA Tour's appeal will be heard by the high court on January 17, and Martin will be on hand to support an earlier court decision that granted him permission initially. But there could be another stumbling block in his path to final approval.

Kenny Green, a 19-year-old high school golfer of Clarkson, Tenn., will contest Martin's use of the cart. Green, his school's best golfer, has a prosthetic leg and walks the course when he plays. He has filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court claiming that riding in a golf cart provides an unfair competitive advantage and should not be permitted. He lost the lower part of his left leg several years ago.

The Martin case has stirred a debate among golfers for several years, and the Court's decision on the appeal has been eagerly awaited, since it could have many spin-off effects. The Court has indicated it has received a considerable number of briefs on both sides of the issue.

In the unlikely event that someone is trying to decide who was the best golfer of 1999, let the following polls be a guide:

• The Associated Press tabbed Tiger Woods as its Male Athlete of the Year for the third time.

• Sports Illustrated picked Tiger Woods once again as its Man of the Year.

• And Tiger's fellow-pros named him PGA Tour Player of the year.

• Florida's votes are still being counted.

Incidentally, in terms of his standing with the media, Tiger has suddenly become a favorite of the supermarket tabloids. For three successive weeks recently, Tiger occupied prominent space in one or more of the scandal sheets.

The most recent claims, "according to an inside source" that Tiger's father, Earl, is opposed to a marriage with girlfriend Joanna Jagoda and that Tiger is "heart-broken."

Ah, the cost of making all those great putts!

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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