ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s touted as the most dramatic, gut-wrenching, time-to-throw-it-all-on-the-line tournament in professional golf: PGA Tour Q-School. Every fall, hundreds of hopefuls tee it up in three stages (four for those going through a pre-qualifying stage) of a show-up-or-shut-up test that culminates in a six-round marathon finale, yielding just 25 PGA Tour cards.
In a marketing sense, it’s the ultimate sellable story – play for your job or wait a year to try it again.
But the reality? It's more pressure-filled than TV and most media dictate, and here’s why: Past the top 25 finishers and ties who earn PGA Tour privileges for the following year, the next number of finishers closest to 50 earn full Nationwide Tour status.
After that, it’s conditional status only, and that’s where the real fun – or frustration – starts.
First off, take those players who already enter finals week with some PGA Tour or Nationwide Tour status out of the equation. They're there for improvement purposes only and it's not uncommon to see a lot of them withdraw halfway through the week if they don't think they can do that.Pressure? Sure, this type of player feels it in the fact that there's always a lot riding on any tournament – especially this one – but having at least some safety net to fall back on is better than the alternative of heading back to the pay-for-play events on the mini-tours.
Pressure is when you walk away from finals with a “number” – partial status otherwise known as conditional on the Nationwide circuit, with a designated number based from Q-School finish below those who earn full cards. In this case, chances are your chances to keep your Nationwide card the following year go plummeting down.
Why? Because of the Tour’s intricate and complex prioritization of filtering in an overabundance of players – past champions, those fitting into different money list categories, PGA Tour players relegated to a Nationwide event after failing to get into a coinciding Tour event, etc. – into limited starting fields, with the conditional players at the bottom of the heap.
It makes for golf’s version of the clown car – too many guys, not enough room.
The formula is complicated – so much so that trying to explain it without a few scheduled bathroom breaks wouldn’t bode well – but it can be boiled down to the simple math that any player having a “number” won’t get nearly the starts as a full member. Add in the rule that conditional players are not eligible for Wednesday pro-ams, operate under a different benefits program and ultimately cannot set a definitive schedule, the difference between the last full Nationwide card earner and the first conditional card earner is much more significant than the simple one-shot difference after six rounds of golf.
John Douma shot 1 under at finals last December to tie for 78th, one shot shy of earning his full Nationwide Tour card. And by way of scorecard playoff – through a birdie on the final hole – he scored the lucky first conditional card. That got him 17 starts, $12,718 and a 166th money list rank.
Granted, Douma fought a neck injury 14 events into the season on top of poor play, but you get the point.
But after playing in five of the first six events on the ’10 schedule and missing every cut, come the first “reshuffle,” his number slipped downward and he finished the season teeing it up in just 12 of the final 21 events.
Reshuffle? Every six events, based on the money list, the Tour reshuffles the status – or numbers – of each player, which determines the priority of earning starts until the next reshuffle, when the process starts all over again.
In the conditional case of Douma, since his number had changed, so did his schedule. Not only was he on track for fewer starts at that point, but he put more pressure on himself because of the limited opportunities to get into events and move up the money list.
“It was by far the worst mental year of my life,” says Douma, a multiple winner and longtime player on the Gateway Pro Tour in Arizona. “Every week I was basically using my tee-up money (money earned through club manufacturer agreements) and off-site pro-ams to get me through to pay for expenses.
“It was rough. I obviously didn’t play well aside from my injury, but I made $12,000 and spent 70. After 11 straight Q-Schools and to make it to finals on the 12th try, I’m right back again at Square One.”
Some way to live out your dream. And he’s not alone.
Take Chris Kamin, who finished T-98, four shots off of the full-card pace; Dustin White, who finished T-108, six shots away, and Nathan Tyler, who finished T-139, 13 shots away from full status: with each extra shot taken at Q-School finals, starts can dwindle dramatically. Kamin played in just 14 events (with $34,284 in earnings), White in only four (with $5,443 in earnings) and Tyler in five (with $8,240 in earnings), seeing none of the three play before the BMW Charity Pro-Am – the ninth event of the season.
Don’t get this reasoning wrong – play well and all is forgotten. All four players didn’t get the job done this year.
And there’s always Monday qualifying to make your own destiny before your number is called. Many have made their way up the Nationwide Tour money list and even onto the PGA Tour that way.
But the difference between the Haves and Have-nots, in a game that already puts players close to the edge mentally in the most perfect of circumstances, is huge.
If you can guarantee when and where you’re playing, you’ve at least got part of the riddle solved.
Better benefits? The luxury of Wednesday pro-ams to make a little extra cash?
Sure, that doesn’t hurt, either. But in a game where your job can change from clerk to owner to clerk again, on any given birdie- or bogey-run, every guarantee is gravy.
And that’s why, aside from the players you’ll see pouring their hearts out in the post-round interview because they just earned their PGA Tour cards, or narrowly missed, it’s those players you may not see or read about – the guys right around that cusp of earning full Nationwide status – who are really feeling it.