THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – The stories litter golf’s landscape this time of year, like pine needles gathering under a Christmas tree. We’ve all heard them. The final-hole putt that went halfway into the hole and inexplicably popped out. The approach shot that hit a cart path and bounced on top of the clubhouse roof. The incorrectly signed scorecard.
These are the tales of Q-School’s gloom and doom. They quench our wicked thirst for schadenfreude, but also serve a greater purpose. We learn a lesson with each one, that the line between PGA Tour glory and another year of professional deficiency is as thin as a 1-iron.
And yet, for every sob story – OK, maybe for every five, or 10, or 100 stories – there is one about the guy who made it, the guy who through some combination of talent, grit, determination, perseverance and luck aimed high and achieved his dream. Sometimes these success stories last only a year before the player is right back to Chasing the Dream; other times it can translate into long-term prosperity.
Every so often, there’s a player who enters Q-School with everything on the line and not only earns his way to the big leagues, but takes the fast track to superstardom on the way there. Consider them the ultimate examples of the domino effect. A bad swing here, a lipped-out putt there, and their fortunes would have become misfortune – at least for another year.
Instead, these players have gone from the six-round grind-fest to golf’s penthouse, becoming not only elite talents but household names along the way. With changes to the Q-School format impending, stories such as these will cease to exist in their current form. The following four endure – from players who need no introduction.
Hunter Mahan never played a single event on the PGA Tour’s developmental tour. It’s not terribly uncommon for some players to eschew membership, but it’s rare when one can make the leap and avoid the circuit altogether.
He knows it easily could have gone the other way.
Mahan first entered Q-School in 2003, successfully earning his PGA Tour card. He retained status that first season, then lost it the next year. So he returned to Q-School again, earned his card again and has never looked back.
“I always liked Q-School,” he recalls. “I thought through six rounds you’re going to find out who the better players are and who can make it on Tour. You earn the chance and opportunity to play out there. When you play enough rounds, you play those six rounds, I think it gets weeded out pretty good. The guys who have the mental ability and strength to get through usually do. But there’s a thin line there that separates a career from going quickly or taking a year or two.”
Seven years after his last trip to Q-School, Mahan is the world’s 25th-ranked player, a five-time PGA Tour winner who owns more than $21 million in career earnings.
He doesn’t take it for granted. Mahan understands that while talent and determination have plenty to do with which side of that thin line a player falls, there are some who simply aren’t as fortunate.
“That’s a tough life,” he says of toiling on the developmental tour. “Some of those guys are barely scraping by with families, driving all around. My hat’s off to the guys who do that, who follow their dreams, because that’s not an easy thing. That’s work. It may be harder than someone getting a 9-to-5 job, because that’s travel and pressure. That’s real life more than what we do.”
Many players enter Q-School with some advantage already intact. It can be anything from an exemption into the second stage to a lower level of status that needs improving.
Dustin Johnson wasn’t afforded these luxuries.
When he entered Q-School in 2007, he started not from the middle or the end like others, but right from the start – not that it affected him much. The easygoing long-hitter impressed in first stage, winning by some eight strokes, then easily cruised through the second and third stages to earn his playing privileges.
Since then, the Coastal Carolina product has made his mark by winning at least one PGA Tour title in each of his first five seasons, the first player to do that straight out of college since Tiger Woods.
“I’ve been fortunate enough, since I’ve gotten out here I’ve done really well,” he admits. “It’s hard work, but this is the best place to be, especially if you love to play golf. There’s no better place in the world than the PGA Tour. Sometimes it’s just really hard to get out here. Q-School is really tough, six days of grinding.'
Ask Webb Simpson what most prepared him for Q-School back in 2008 and he won’t point to the six PGA Tour starts he made that year – including three made cuts – but the eight appearances on the erstwhile Nationwide Tour, where he compiled a pair of runner-up finishes.
“If I hadn't have played those events, I don't think I would have gotten in,” he maintains. “But yeah, it set up everything. I came out in '09 and finished ninth and fifth in my first two tournaments.”
And he hasn’t looked back. Simpson tallied eight top-25 results that first season and seven more in 2010 before reaching his breakthrough performance last year. He won twice, had three runner-up results and a dozen overall top-10s, which served as a knowing precursor to his U.S. Open victory this year.
Even though his story remains a Q-School success, Simpson understands the reason for change going forward and believes it could help nurture similar tales in future years.
“It's going to be tough for guys that don't make it this year given it's the last year, but it helped me tremendously, just gave me a quick start,” he says. “It's not going to be that way anymore, but I think what they're doing is good. I think better players will come out of the playoff system.”
There may be no greater tale of instant Q-School gratification than that of Rickie Fowler.
An all-everything wunderkind out of Oklahoma State, Fowler nearly won titles on both the PGA Tour and Nationwide Tour in 2009, losing each time in a playoff. Those results were enough to exempt him into the final stage, which he considered a relief in itself.
“The hardest part of Q-School is getting through second stage – it’s only four rounds, everything on the line, it can all come down to one shot, whether you have status somewhere or you have nothing,” he explains. “Once you get to third stage, six rounds kind of gives you a little bit of wiggle room for one tough round, where you can kind of figure some things out.”
For him, that round was the first one. He turned what he thought could have been a round “in the high-70s” into a 74, then went low for the next few days to easily qualify and earn PGA Tour status for 2010.
The rest, as they say, is history. Instant history. Fowler claimed seven top-10s that season, earning not only Rookie of the Year honors, but a captain’s pick for that year’s Ryder Cup team. Less than a year after grinding it out at Q-School, he was competing for his country alongside the greats of the game. Just two years later, he earned his first PGA Tour victory.
“Looking back, I could have been on the Web.com for a year, it wouldn’t have been the worst thing,” he says. “I would have had status somewhere, would have been playing for money, would have been able to make a living and get things started, hopefully continue to play well and get on the PGA Tour later. But you’re talking about no Rookie of the Year and obviously no Ryder Cup, which has been one of my biggest accomplishments besides the win. Q-School can definitely make or break some guys.”