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Excerpt: 'Tales from Q School'

'Tales from Q School'

Dreams (and Nightmares) Come True

The dream is always the same. It starts with Tommy Tolles standing on the ninth tee of the Panther Lake course at Orange County National Golf Center and Lodge on a windy Monday afternoon in December. He has a three-wood in his hands and is wondering: "Is eleven the number? Could it slide to ten? Maybe it will go to 12. Do I really need a three-wood? The hole is playing downwind, and the fairways are baked from the wind and lack of rain. A par might very well be all I need." For a moment, he wishes that instead of his pal Jamie Rowland, he had a tour caddy on his bag. Nothing against Rowland, who had walked 18 grueling holes every day for six days just to try to help Tolles, but this is one of those times when talking to someone who has been through this sort of golf-trauma would be helpful.

Tolles finally gets over the ball, three-wood in his hands. He takes the club back, and he can hear from the sound as he follows through that he has caught the ball flush, that, in golf lingo, he's hit it right on the screws. The ball screams straight down the middle of the fairway, several yards to the right of where Tolles was aiming. The left rough, he knew, was safe; he could get the ball on the green from there. But there was water on the right.

The ball drifts a little bit right, and Tolles feels his heart pounding. It hits the ground and bounces — hard — to the right. It is bouncing in the direction of the water, and because the fairway is so burned-out, there's nothing to slow it down. It gets closer and closer. By now Tolles knows what is going to happen. It disappears into the lake. "No!" Tolles wants to scream. It can't be in the water. Only it is, and he knows, at that moment, that all his work to get back onto the PGA Tour has been for naught.

He wakes up, drenched in sweat. Even sleeping on top of the covers, he's covered in sweat.

That isn't the worst part, though. The worst part is knowing he is going to have the dream again.

And again.

It is like that every single year at what is now officially called the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, although to everyone connected with golf, it is known simply as "Q School." Once upon a time, there was a "school" aspect to the event, with players forced to sit in classrooms to learn rules, etiquette, and teaching techniques, since, once upon a time, all golf pros were expected to be teachers as well as players.

Every year at Q School, there are stories of heartbreak. At the 2005 Q School finals, Tolles was one of those stories. An accomplished player who has finished as high as 16th on the PGA Tour money list, Tolles was trying to fight his way back onto the tour after years of swing changes and frustration had landed him in golf's minor leagues. He had struggled for almost five and a half rounds, staying on the fringes of contention more because of smarts and experience than because of the way he was hitting the ball.

"I had pretty much given up hope to get back to the tour midway through the last day," he said later. "I was just trying to make sure I had full Nationwide [the tour's highest minor league] status. Then I birdied 18 [he had started his round on the 10th tee] and hit a four-iron to four feet on number one. Suddenly, it clicked in. Two hours later, I'm on the ninth tee, and I've birdied six of nine holes and I'm right there with that three-wood in my hands."

Which is where the dream of returning to the tour ended and the recurring nightmare began. After his ball found the water, he double-bogeyed the hole. His wife in tears, Tolles was finished except for the dream that would not go away.

For Grant Waite, another accomplished veteran, there was no need to rally late, no reason to believe that the week would end up as anything other than a ticket back to the place where he had happily made his living for most of a dozen years. He had steadily played his way into a comfortable position, well inside the number that would put him back on the PGA Tour. With nine holes to play, he was 16 under par for the event, which, he figured, put him in about 10th place. Among the 165 players who had made it to the Q School finals, the top 30 (and ties) would make it to the 2006 tour. There are no scoreboards on the golf course at Q School, but the players always have a sense of what the number needed to make the top 30 is going to be. With the wind blowing steadily and the golf course playing hard, Waite and everyone else knew that the number that day would be around 10 or 11 under par.

Sixteen under, after a very solid 32 on the front nine, certainly felt comfortable. But then Waite somehow four-putted the 10th hole for a double bogey, and he suddenly felt a little shaky. Another bogey and then another, and now he had no control over his golf swing or his emotions. It took him 42 shots to maneuver his way around the back nine, and when he finally holed out on 18, his hands were shaking and his face was chalk white. He wasn't so much angry as stunned. His wife, Lea, who had walked every hole with him for six days, was in a state of shock, too.

"People simply don't understand what this is like unless they've gone through it," she had said earlier in the week. "There's no tension in sports quite like this tension."

Her husband agreed. "You aren't asked to do anything at Q School as a golfer that you aren't capable of doing," he said. "But you have to do it this week. Not next week, not last week, this week. There's no appeal, no way to get a second chance. And there's very little margin for error. Too many guys playing for too few spots. You can't count on playing well for six straight days, but you have to make sure your bad days aren't really bad. One over, two over, you can survive. You just can't throw in a six-over or seven-under day."

Waite had followed the script perfectly the first five days, hanging close to par the first two days when he was fighting his swing, then playing the next three rounds at 13 under par with one round to play. "The key now," he said late on the penultimate afternoon, "is to not think about any number, just go out and play well tomorrow."

Easily said. Not so easily executed. What is more difficult in life than not thinking? Especially when you tell yourself not to think?

For nine holes on that final day, Waite didn't think. But the instant he double-bogeyed the 10th hole, he started thinking. The result was that he came up one shot short — or, more accurately, one shot long — of where he needed to be. Thirty-two players finished 108 holes of golf in 422 or fewer shots. Waite was one of ten players, including Dan Forsman, a five-time winner on the PGA Tour, who needed 423 shots. In many cases, that 423rd shot was less than a foot long, a tap-in that the player knew would doom him to a tour where the total prize money each week is far less than the weekly winner's share on the PGA Tour. When the 2006 PGA Tour opened in January, the purse for the first full-field event of the year was $5.1 million, with the winner getting $918,000. When the Nationwide Tour began play in Panama in February, the purse was $550,000, with the winner receiving $99,000. The leading money winner on the Nationwide Tour in 2005 was Troy Matteson, who made $495,009. There were 151 players who earned more than that on the PGA Tour — including 79 who made more than $1 million in prize money for the year.

The PGA Tour is a dream world of big-money contracts for equipment and endorsements; courtesy cars and courtesy phones; people standing by to grant your every wish, whether it is a shopping spree for your wife or luxury box seats to a ball game. The Nationwide Tour is real life: searching for cheap airfares or driving from event to event; looking for the best rate the Fairfield Inn or Hampton Inn or Holiday Inn can give you. It is playing in front of hundreds instead of thousands. It is being shocked by how much it costs to refuel your car versus how much it costs to refuel your plane.

It is 423 shots instead of 422.

"It hurts, it really hurts," Dan Forsman said. "I think it hurts more when you've known what life is like on the PGA Tour. To say we don't get spoiled would be silly. We do get spoiled — bigtime. Then you put everything you have into getting yourself back there, heart and soul for six days, and you come up an inch or two short. It's tough to take."

Like Tolles, Forsman had rallied late on the final day, making three birdies on the final nine of the week to get to 10 under par. "When you've done this for as long as I have, you have a feel for what the number is going to be," he said. "You don't need a scoreboard. You can tell by the weather conditions, by the condition of the golf course. Your gut just tells you. Some guys think they know the number. In my gut, I knew the number was going to be 11 — just knew it. I came to the last hole needing a birdie to get to 11. I was between nine and pitching wedge for my second shot and finally hit the wedge. It came up about 20 feet short. I knew exactly what was at stake. The putt just didn't break as much as I thought. It stayed a few inches outside the hole. That was how much I missed getting my job back by — three, four inches. I'm not sure I can remember feeling quite as crushed as I did at that moment."

Months later, Forsman's voice was soft and sad as he remembered that day. "In March I got to play at Bay Hill [a PGA Tour event in Orlando]. One day, I'm not sure why, I drove out to Orange County and just kind of walked around. I can't even tell you why I did it. Maybe I was looking for some kind of closure with what had happened in December. I just remember feeling a kind of melancholy walking around out there again, remembering shots — good and bad — from that week. I had a chance once to win the Masters on Sunday, and hit it in the water at 12 and finished seventh. That hurt. But this was different. I'm forty-seven years old. I can hear that clock ticking. I know time is going to run out on me — soon. I just want the chance to play against the best players on a week-to-week basis again before that clock runs out."

Everyone hears the clock — the old, the middle-aged, the young. When you miss at Q School, people pat you on the back, say "Good playing; you'll get 'em next year," and you don't want to hear it. Next year is never guaranteed in golf, except for an elite handful who have won major titles and climbed so far up the ladder they seemingly can't fall down. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Fred Couples, and Jim Furyk are at that level. There may be a few others: Retief Goosen, Davis Love III, Jose Maria Olazabal, and David Toms are probably safe for the rest of their careers.

That's a short list. In 2004 and 2005, Larry Mize — whose 140-foot chip-in to beat Greg Norman in a play-off at the 1987 Masters is one of the most replayed and remembered shots in golf history — found himself back at Q School trying to regain fully exempt status on the tour. In 2006 two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen kept his exempt status only by invoking a one-time exception granted to those in the top 50 on the all-time tour money list. By the end of 2006 he, like Mize, was back at Q School. Paul Azinger, the 1993 PGA champion and a Ryder Cup hero on numerous occasions, entered Q School in 2005, then decided part-time status on the tour was enough for him when combined with his work for ABC. Azinger would have preferred totally exempt status but decided in the end it wasn't worth the torture of Q School.

"You do wonder if you aren't pushing the envelope a little bit when you are paired with guys who call you 'Mr. Mize,' " Larry Mize said, laughing, as he hit balls on the range one afternoon. "One day after we got through playing, one of the kids in my group said to me, 'Mr. Mize, I just have to ask you about the shot at Augusta.' Actually, I kind of enjoy that. I never mind replaying that for people, because it was such a great moment for me. But then I realized later that the kid who asked me about it, who is now a peer I'm trying to compete with, was four years old when that shot happened. Now that's a little bit freaky."

Mize is forty-eight. Like Forsman and Waite (who is forty-two), he has some access to the PGA Tour as a "past champion" — someone who has won at least once on the tour during his career. It wasn't that long ago that a player in that category might get into twenty tournaments a year, but changes in the rules, designed to give younger players more opportunity to play, have made it tougher. For Mize, as a major champion, there might be fifteen chances a year to play. Forsman and Waite aren't likely to get that many opportunities. Waite, who first lost his full-time playing privileges in 2002 after ten years on the tour — including a victory in 1993 and a dramatic one-shot loss to Tiger Woods in Canada in 2001 — spent a couple of years in the netherworld of "wanderers." He tried to get into PGA Tour events wherever and whenever he could, and when he couldn't, he played on the Nationwide Tour.

"At some point, you have to accept the fact that, like it or not, your golf game at this moment is only worthy of the Nationwide," he said. "That's tough to take when you've been on the PGA Tour for a while, but once you accept it, you have a better chance to find your game on the Nationwide." Waite had done that in 2005, playing in twenty Nationwide tournaments and only six PGA Tour events. Even so, it hadn't been easy for him. He had made only nine cuts and finished 96th on the money list. "It's a different world on that tour in so many ways," he said. "You're playing against young guys, who can hit it 50 yards past you and are focused on one thing: making the top 20 on the money list for the year so they can get onto the PGA Tour the next year without going to Q School. You see the kids on the Nationwide, and you realize that they're you fifteen or twenty years ago — fearless, excited to be there, and playing without any doubts at all." He smiled. "I would love to feel that way again, but I know I'm not going to."

Waite wasn't talking specifically about Peter Tomasulo when he described the young guns on the Nationwide Tour, but he might have been. Tomasulo was twenty-four and had been a professional for a little more than a year. He had gone from a barely recruited, barely scholarshipped (books only) freshman at the University of California to an all-American as a senior. He had started 2005 without status on any golf tour and had ended it in 35th place on the Nationwide Tour money list after winning the Alberta Classic, which gave him full status on the Nationwide. Tomasulo had come to Q School without any fears or any doubts. He knew that it was going to be just another step on his journey to the PGA Tour.

"My year had just been on an up escalator from the start," he said. "I'd gone from trying to make it onto the Canadian Tour to playing well on that tour to making it to the Nationwide Tour to finishing fourth in the Nationwide Tour Championship to get the 35th spot on the money list." That finish was crucial to Tomasulo because it meant he didn't have to go to the second stage of Q School. Each year, there are three stages of Q School. A small cadre of players — those who finish between 126th and 150th on the PGA Tour money list and those who finish between 21st and 35th on the Nationwide Tour money list — are exempt from the first two stages. A somewhat larger group — past PGA Tour winners, anyone on the PGA Tour during that year, and those who finish between 36th and 70th on the Nationwide list — are exempt from first stage. Everyone else goes to one of fourteen first-stage sites around the country. In 2005 there were 1,205 Q School entries. Those who started at first stage had to ante up $4,500 to play. Once upon a time, the fee was $200, but inflation and the tour's desire to scare off those who might want to enter just to say they played in Q School have sent the price soaring in recent years. If the fee is a deterrent, no one has noticed a drop-off in entries because of it.

Tomasulo was exempt until the third and final stage. Like Waite, he appeared to be in perfect position going into the final day. He was at 11 under par, right on the number, when he began his round. He was at 12 under par with nine holes to play on that last afternoon, and he didn't have a shred of doubt about what was going to happen at the end of the day. But he got an awful break on the 10th hole, when his second shot to the par-five, a perfect layup, somehow landed squarely on top of a loose divot and stayed right there. "All the years I've played golf, that's never happened to me," he said later. "I had no idea how to play the shot. I ended up chunking it into the rough in front of the green, and the next thing I know, I've made a bogey instead of the birdie I was sure I was going to make. That was the first time I got a little nervous. In fact, it was the first time that the thought 'I wonder what the number will be?' crossed my mind. Until then, I wasn't even thinking about the number; I was just trying to make as many birdies as I could so I'd finish as high up on the final list as possible. Once that thought came into my head, I couldn't get it out no matter how hard I tried not to think about it."

Tomasulo bogeyed the next two holes but managed to right himself long enough to squeeze out a couple of tough pars and then birdie the 16th hole. He was at 10 under, convinced like everyone else that was probably one off the number. "But I had 18 left," he said. "A downwind, downhill par-five that I could easily reach in two. I knew I just had to get off the 17th with a par and then go after birdie on the 18th."

Maybe it was the twenty-minute wait on the tee — there is nothing in the world slower than the last round at Q School — or maybe it was the gusty wind or the difficult pin placement on the small back shelf of the water-protected green. Or maybe it was just nerves. Tomasulo selected an eight-iron, not wanting to come up short. Then he watched in horror as the ball drifted left of where he had aimed, took one big hop, and spun into a back bunker. "When I saw it go in there, my knees just about buckled," he said. "I'd seen other guys play out of there during the week, and I knew how tough a shot it was. But I had to try and get it close."

Trying to hit a perfect second shot to give himself a chance to save par, Tomasulo instead squirted the ball out of the bunker, and it ran straight across the green, almost rolling into the water. From there he made a double-bogey five and walked off the green knowing he wasn't going to be on the PGA Tour in 2006. "As I was watching my second shot run across the green, the thought went through my head, 'Oh, my God, you aren't making it. Oh, my God, you aren't making it!' " Tomasulo said. "It was a hollow feeling that went right to my knees. I just couldn't believe it."

The toughest part may have been having to play the 18th hole knowing that he had no chance — unless he could somehow hole out from the fairway for a miraculous double-eagle two. The two men he was playing with, Brett Wetterich and B. J. Staten, had managed to hang on to finish at 11 under, meaning they would be going to the PGA Tour, while Tomasulo went back to the Nationwide. "The worst part of the whole day was probably shaking hands with them on the 18th green and telling them congratulations," Tomasulo said. "Not because they weren't good guys, but because they had done what I couldn't do, and it hurt — it just really hurt."

He smiled. "I have no memory at all of what I said. I just hope I wasn't rude."

Tomasulo wasn't rude. Staten remembers him saying congratulations, but he also remembers the look on his face. "It may have been the happiest moment of my life," he said. "But shaking hands with Peter, I felt awful. I knew just how close I'd come to being exactly where he was."

Even if Tomasulo had been rude, chances are good neither Staten nor Wetterich would have noticed or cared at that moment. Tomasulo was in shock; they were in ecstasy. The three of them had spent more than five hours that day grinding toward the same goal. In the end, Wetterich and Staten had been able to lunge across the finish line. Tomasulo had come up a few steps short.

Because Staten had never made it to the tour before and was one of ten players who had survived all three stages to get his tour card, he was surrounded by both well-wishers and media after he signed his scorecard. Tomasulo stood a few yards away with his caddy. He appeared to be staring at Staten, as if torturing himself by watching the celebration. "It wasn't anything like that at all," he said. "I know I stood there for a while, because I didn't have the energy to walk back to the clubhouse. It was as if all the life had drained out of my body. But I don't remember anything about it. I don't even remember seeing B. J. or anyone around him. I didn't see anything. I didn't hear anything."

Staten's memory of those few moments isn't much better than Tomasulo's. "I know I was happy, and I remember a lot of people being there," he said. "But if you ask me any details — who said what to me, what I said to anyone — I don't remember much at all. It's all very hazy."

That's what Q School does to people. It leaves them dazed — with joy; with utter dejection. A small cadre are invited to a PGA Tour–sponsored party that night to welcome them to the tour. The rest go back to hotel rooms to pack their bags and wait till next year. If, by some chance, one of the nonqualifiers were to wander into the party for the qualifiers — perhaps to congratulate a friend — a tour official would very politely but firmly ask him to leave.

When Q School is over, you are either invited to the party or not. There is no in between.

Copyright © 2007 by John Feinstein

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John Feinstein
Every week since 1988, Morning Edition listeners have tuned in to hear reports and commentaries on events such as the NBA Finals, Wimbledon, the NFL playoffs, the MLB All-Star game and the U.S. Open golf championship from award-winning author John Feinstein. He has also contributed to The Washington Post and Sporting News Radio since 1992, America Online since 2000 and Golf Digest and Gold World since 2003.