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Depending on who you talk to, it is either affectionately or unaffectionatly called the Fall Classic. In reality it is a tournament unlike any other among professional golfers. Well, its not held in the fall, but instead smack dab in the middle of the holiday season. Some way to spend it huh? No question about it, this is the toughest tournament of the year. The PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, known also as Q-School.
 
Entry isnt free and the test certainly isnt for everyone! Those with thin skin need not apply. At stake is a job, a career and a dream all rolled up into one dreadfully long process that lasts nearly two months and occupies minds for much of a year.
 
In 2001 approximately 1,200 applications were received. Then 13 first stage regionals were held, followed by six second stage regionals, in order to reduce the number of lucky men to 167 for the final stage. That final stage ' a grueling test of 108 holes was held at Bear Lakes Country Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., where 36 players more than EARNED their way on to the PGA Tour for the 2002 season.
 
The top 35 and ties at the final stage each year gain the ultimate prize. The number next closest to 50 earn full exempt status on the Nationwide (formerly Buy.Com) Tour for 2003, and the remainder of the field earns condionally exempt status on the Nationwide Tour.
 
Yes, there is something for everyone who makes it to the finals. Given the choice though, most want nothing to do with the tournament at all. Yet others, perhaps less-seasoned players, dream for the chance to turn six rounds into a spot on the PGA Tour with the likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia.
 
So what is the appeal to the avid golf fan? Its reality television in its purest sense. Players are playing for their jobs, not just there scores. And just like most of us, there are moments we can all relate to.
 
For every Pat Perez or Mike Weir or Blaine McCallister whove gone to the dreaded Q-school and walked away with top honors in their class, there are the others who just cant shake the bad memories that played out.
 
For instance, recent Buy.Com Tour winner Roland Thatcher found out just how hard it is to close the deal at the 2001 Qualifying Tournament Finals at Bear Lakes. Needing just a par on his final hole of the week, Thatcher sent his final approach shot onto the clubhouse roof! He dropped into an unplayable lie, finished out with a triple bogey and missed his PGA Tour card by a single shot.
 
Or consider Joe Daley two years ago in La Quinta, California. He watched a putt not only drop, but pop out as well! The amazing misfortune cost him a stroke and ultimately his PGA Tour card. Like Thatcher, Daley missed by one shot.
 
Or how about Cliff Kresges go of it that same year? The Apopka, Fla., resident was lining up his putt at the ninth hole in round six, only to step back too far and tumble into the lake behind the green. Kresge laughed it off, went to the car for the rain pants and earned his way to the PGA Tour. Yet hes never lived down the moment, keeping with him the nickname Over the Cliff Kreesge.
 
Also at LaQuinta in 2000, Tim ONeal stumbled badly at the final hole, making triple bogey and saw his dreams dashed.
 
Perhaps the story of them all came three years ago at Doral Resort & Spa where unheralded Jaxon Brigman earned his way to the biggest tour of them all, only to sign for an incorrect score along the way that took away the prize before the joy of it ever had a chance to sink in.
 
You see, at Q-School there are both fears and tears among the men who chase a place on golfs greatest stage. Even the fantastic fails to guarantee success.
 
Take David Gossett in 2000. He blistered the Nicklaus Private Course at PGA West to the tune of 59, but still came up short for the week. Five other rounds in the 70s offset his Q-School record low score and kept him from the graduation ceremony. Yet, a year later Gossett took advantage of a sponsor exemption at the John Deere Classic to post a PGA Tour victory and make that week in the desert a positive memory.
 
In my time covering the twist-filled tournament for The Golf Channel, by far the best story came last year in West Palm Beach. Teenage sensation Ty Tryon, then a 17-year-old from Orlando, Fla., battled the doubters and the tension and closed with a final round of 66 to tie for 23rd and earn his way into a workplace filled with men who could be his father. Tryon is the exception and not the rule.
 
This year the Qualifying Tournament finds its way back to the west coast. La Quinta, Calif., and scary PGA West plays host again. Well witness 108 holes of drop-dead pressure and edge-of-your-seat drama. It might be great theater, but pay close attention to the faces after each and every shot and the words spoken after each round. Youll see some of the best in the world at their chosen craft struggling like a college student cramming for a final exam that will make or break his graduation.
 
And in this one, dont forget appreciate the quest and not the purse - because money is not the issue at stake. Its a career thats on the line.