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One man's long journey to the PGA Tour

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All George McNeill wanted to do was get in his car and point it in the direction of home. There really was nothing else to do. His career as a golfer, as best he could see, was over. He had just bogeyed the 18th hole at the TPC of Tampa Bay and was virtually certain he had missed making it out of the first stage of PGA Tour Q-School – again. He had just turned 30 a couple of weeks earlier and he was now 0-for-8 in his attempts to get through Q-School in order to realize his dream of playing on the PGA Tour.

A few minutes earlier, he had stood on the 18th tee convinced that a par would be good enough to get him to second stage. A birdie would be a bonus, a par probably good enough.

“I couldn’t handle it,” he said. “I missed the green by a mile with my second shot and that was pretty much it.”

He actually hit a reasonably good third shot, to about 12 feet, but his putt died an inch to the right. That inch was the difference between advancing and not advancing and he knew it the instant he missed – not because someone told him but because players have an instinct at Q-School for what the ‘number’ is to advance. McNeill had finished four rounds at 2 under par. He was certain the number was going to be 3.

“I signed my card and walked over to the (score) board where everyone was standing around watching the numbers go up. I really never actually stopped walking. I just did a quick count in my head and, even though all the scores weren’t up yet, I knew I was out. I could have waited around to be sure, but I didn’t want to do that,” he said.

“I just went straight to my car. My mind was racing as soon as I walked off the green. All I could think was, ‘this is it. You’re 30. You just missed first stage. This isn’t working. You have to go find a job.’ It was breaking my heart but I was being realistic. It took me about 3 minutes to go from signing my card to being in my car. In that 3 minutes I decided I was done.”

McNeill had been an All-American at Florida State, a lean, long-hitting free swinger who believed his future was on the PGA Tour. Once, in 2002, he had made Q-School finals. That got him a job on what was then the Nationwide Tour in 2003. “I played horribly all year,” (115th on the money list) he said. “I had qualified for the (U.S.) Open in ’02 and that gave me some confidence going into Q-School but by the end of ’03 I felt pretty much back to Square 1.”

And then, two years later, came the late meltdown in Tampa. “I honestly don’t remember the next couple of days,” he said, laughing. “I remember driving home, getting a case of beer and trying to drink myself into oblivion. I think I succeeded. About a week later, nothing had changed: I needed a job.”

A friend of his told him that Bill Harley, the head pro at Shadow Wood Country Club, which wasn’t far from where McNeill was living in Ft. Myers, Fla., was looking for an assistant pro. Since the club was corporate-owned, McNeill had to go through all the formalities of a job interview. The process was unsettling.

“I had never actually interviewed for a real adult job,” he said. “I guess in high school I went and talked to the pro at the club where I jockeyed carts, but that had been it. I had to put on a suit and do the whole thing. It definitely felt a little bit strange.”

He got the job and, a few months later when Harley got a job at a club called The Forest, McNeill went with him. It was a little closer to his home and the job paid better – about $27,000 a year.

“I did what I had to do every day,” McNeill said. “But I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand being in the shop or doing all the things a club pro does. I respect those guys a lot because they put up with a lot. But I knew it wasn’t for me. After about six months I walked into Bill and I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t do this anymore. I have to get outside and try to play golf again.’

“He just looked at me and said, ‘what took you so long? Get out of here and get to work.’”

McNeill did with a different attitude. He didn’t just want to play golf successfully he needed to play successfully. He’d seen the alternative and it didn’t thrill him. Like any long hitter, he often spent a lot of his practice time with the driver in his hands. Now, even when he didn’t much feel like it, he spent time grinding on his short game.

He went back to first stage in the fall and won. “It doesn’t matter where you finish at first or second stage as long as you’re inside the number,” he said. “But the first day I shot 1 over on a day the wind was howling and I knew I’d played well. The next three days the wind laid down and I shot 18 under. That gave me some confidence.”

Second stage, which players agree carries the most pressure because a job playing golf someplace is at stake, was more of the same – lots of birdies and a breeze into the finals. He felt like a different player and a different person – especially when he arrived for the finals at PGA West.

“I was on the range and there were so many guys who had been on Tour talking about how awful it was to be back at Q-School,” he said. “I thought it was GREAT to be at Q-School. I was so happy to be there. My thinking was that I already had something because I’d made it through second stage. The only question was how good my something was going to be. I was a long way from the year before when I had absolutely nothing.”

The something turned out to be everything possible. McNeill won going away, finishing first by five shots.

“Before the last round I figured out that I could shoot 80 and still make it,” he said. “That probably wasn’t a good thought. I walked off the first tee and I realized I was shaking with nerves. I took a deep breath and got myself under control. Then I shot 30 on the front nine.” He laughed. “I figured I could throw it around on the back nine and shoot 50 so I was okay at that point.”

He’s been mostly okay since. During his rookie year he won in Las Vegas making him one of two rookies (Brandt Snedeker was the other) to win on Tour in 2007. He won in Puerto Rico earlier this year for his second Tour win.

“The first win is so big because of everything that comes with it,” he said. “You’re exempt for two years, you control your schedule, you get to play with the big names. I still remember after I won having guys I didn’t even think knew who I was come up and congratulate me – Davis Love, David Toms, Vijay (Singh). That was very cool.

“It took me a while to win again, but I finally did it. I worried at times I’d be one of those guys who won once and was never heard from again. So winning again was a good feeling, too.”

The only downer about the two wins is that they were both events that didn’t bring an automatic Masters invitation. “Obviously I’d love to play The Masters,” he said. “Or maybe I’ll set the record for most wins without getting into the Masters. Either way, I can’t complain about where I am.”

It has been seven years now since he drove away from the TPC of Tampa in search of oblivion. He has come a long way since.