The pressure of the final round of the PGA TOUR Qualifying Tournament is second to none in terms of the pressure it imparts on so many contestants. Combine the pressure of fighting for your professional life with the almost fictional-looking PGA West Stadium Course, and it would be understandable if officials checked ID's at the gate. PG-13 would be too mild.
One player admitted to playing in a group that 'might have exceeded 1,000 expletives amongst us.' The final blow came when a player cursed his luck over a perceived bad break by uttering the same offensive word repeatedly, then looked up to unexpectedly see the nearby face of the lovely middle-aged lady who had volunteered her time to be the walking scorer. An immediate attempt to grovel and beg for forgiveness ensued before he was interrupted by a kind and understanding soul. 'I play this (blanking) game, too,' his scorekeeper uttered, and all was instantly forgiven.
It's unfortunate that the superlatives often used in trying to describe the action at many important sporting events are the same words used in describing true life-or-death realities, such as our men and women in the military putting their lives on the line in the defense of our national values and liberties. A game, or sport of any magnitude obviously isn't remotely comparable; however, when your lifelong dreams are on the line and when you're trying to perform under the most grueling pressure you've ever faced in a game that can be maddening even at the best of times, the fact is that the internal battle within a player's soul might have a hard time discerning the difference. Even a golf-addicted, middle-aged lady volunteer could instantly relate.
In the end, a 31-year-old part time mini-tour player, part time assistant pro, claimed medalist honors with a remarkable five-shot victory. And although it may seem like it came out of nowhere, George McNeill's five-shot victory was simply business as usual for the three-stage qualifying process where he set himself apart from the competition at every level.
McNeill's 23-under-par, six-round Q-school finals score brought his 2006 cumulative total to 58 under par for all three stages that totaled 14 rounds of golf. He was medalist at his first stage site by six strokes, followed by a third-place finish at his second stage site, and just after sunset Monday, he added his name to the history books and sent a message to his new group of contemporaries. Anybody can have one lucky week at finals, but his play over the last five weeks should serve notice that although they may not have heard of him in the past, they just might hear a lot about him next year. Not bad for a guy who's lived with the nickname 'Fly' for most of his adult life. Fly's not the worst nickname around, but when you consider that it was based on the 'Back to the Future' character 'McFly,' the air-headed father of Michael J. Fox's character, one could assume that George is use to being underestimated. And in the life imitating art department, just like the movie's sequels portrayed, McFly eventually got the last word.
There were 40 graduates from Q-school this year, each with a feel-good story of his own. Matt Hendrix was one of seven players in the last eight groups to find the water at the island green 17th hole nicknamed Alcatraz. Then he was faced with a must-make putt at the last to get his PGA TOUR card, and he calmly drained it. Michael Bradley, Kyle Reifers, Jaco Van Zyl, and Brian Bateman each made clutch putts on their last hole to make it on the number. Van Zyl's was a double-breaking birdie putt for a final-round 64 that included three birdies on his last four holes. And in the end, the heartbreaking finishes we're accustomed to seeing when the Q-school visits the 'Dyeabolical' Stadium Course, well, they were outnumbered by the players who summoned the ability to perform when it mattered most.
Now comes the tough part. Sixty-one players this year (combined Nationwide Tour and Q-school) were added to the PGA TOUR roster in a system that was designed to handle 50. Combine that with the uncertainty that surrounds the number of playing opportunities for new card holders due to the new FedEx Cup system, and the pressure that Q-school brought for six days will be expanded to an entire season next year. Three-time Nationwide Tour graduate Gavin Coles said it best, 'I got a ticket on the bus, but no seat.' TOUR officials on site at Q-school were already concerned over the 'big cut'. Twelve players tied for the last card and 40 were given out when the plans were for 30.
Monday night in La Quinta, Calif., wasn't a time for concerns over the uphill battle next year could bring. Rather, it was a time for celebration. It was a time to gather with family and friends, take a swig of that long-awaited beverage, sigh to the heavens and thank their lucky stars. Monday night was the reward for a life's passion and for the 17 rookies of this year's class, it's safe to say that they've never felt anything like it.
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