PGA Tour Q-School is the most frightening event in golf. Yes, majors carry far more weight, but only a few players at each major feel the pressure of potentially undergoing a life-changing experience. And other tours around the world have their own Q-Schools, but it is no secret that every player who plays for money dreams of playing on the PGA Tour, where the money and the courses are the best in the world.
Professional golfers get rich on the PGA Tour; lots of them, so rich that they don’t need to worry about money the rest of their lives and, in many cases, neither do their children. Every shot by every player at PGA Tour Q-School is hit with this knowledge – and the corresponding knowledge that the alternative to success may well be oblivion.
I first attempted Q-School in 1985. Fresh out of college, I made it to finals. At that time there was a 72-hole cut in the 108-hole event. I made that cut, and for the next two nights had to go to mandatory classes to learn the business of the PGA of America as well as the PGA Tour. Playing at the time for one of only 50 cards, I missed out and had to wait a year to try again. I tried and failed again in 1986. So in 1987 I decided to take a different approach.
After playing obscure mini-tours all over the world in 1985 and '86, I decided I would test myself against the best players in the world by playing in Monday qualifying for Tour events. These events, known as four-spotters because they typically offer four spots into that week’s event from a field of more than 100, seemed an unlikely way to try to support myself, but I was searching for a frame of mind. I also decided to try to qualify for the U.S. and British Opens, so I would spend the year in my own way playing at the highest level without a Tour card. I made the four-spotters at Phoenix, Hawaii and Las Vegas and qualified for both the U.S. and British Opens. Even though I didn’t make as much money as I had the previous two years playing in state opens, I felt like I had seen the best in the world. Now Q-School didn’t seem as daunting.
I entered the Fall Classic, as Q-School is known, determined not just to qualify, but to win. That attitude and the experience I had gained in 1987, competing against the best players in the world, proved comforting. I led Q-School after 36 holes and qualified with ease. My traveling companion, however, had a far more stressful week than I did.
Mark Brooks, my teammate at the University of Texas, a former first-team All-American, had played the Tour from 1984-87 without success and he arrived at the Fall Classic in financial distress and without an ounce of confidence. He was staying next door to me in the hotel and every night I could hear him on the phone to his loved ones, saying he didn’t know what he was going to do the next year should he fail at Q-School. He was well outside the number for the top 50 and as we made the 30-minute drive for the final round, neither of us spoke until we were pulling in to the course.
Mark had a dozen golf balls in his hands. Out of the heavy silence he started screaming at them.
'Whichever one of you is afraid of the dark, say so now and there are no hard feelings, I just won’t put you in,' he yelled. 'C’mon, you gutless balls, speak up!'
I looked at him, he smiled and we both started laughing.
He began the day five shots outside the top 50. I didn't know how his final round went until I spotted him as I was playing the last hole, walking to the green. He had a beer in each hand and sunglasses on. I didn’t know if the beers were being consumed in celebration or despondency, but I suspected the latter. I pointed at him as if to say, what did you shoot? He cradled one beer under his arm and held up five fingers, then pointed them downward, indicating he had shot 5-under-par 67. It was the lowest round of the day.
He got his Tour card, and that night at dinner we sat in a glow of achievement that felt better than any moment I had known in golf. Mark said to me, 'Qualifying for the Tour was a lot easier than succeeding on the Tour.'
Mark would go on to win seven times on the PGA Tour, including the 1996 PGA Championship. He missed the John Daly-Costantino Rocca playoff for the British Open by one shot in 1995 and would lose the U.S. Open in a playoff in 2001. His life and his career changed all because of that last round at Q-School in 1987.
As for me, well, my career on Tour was nowhere near as successful as Mark’s, but my life changed drastically in the fall of 1987 and I still look back at that week as one of the turning points of my life.
Every year, every player at Q-School knows that every shot means the difference between living a dream and enduring a nightmare. That's why there is no event that comes remotely close to the pressures of Q-School.