Q-School second stage puts real pressure on players


BROOKSVILLE, Fla. – There will be no shortage of hard-luck, tear-jerk, bottomed-out, end-of-the-line tales of woe at the PGA Tour’s final Q-School in two weeks; but if the end of an institution will also be the end of the line for some, the mathematical reality of the circuit’s layered qualifying process is that this week’s second stage is a much more concerning cliff, both fiscal and otherwise, for many a play-for-play type.

“Second stage is always harder to get through,” said Patrick Sheehan following a first-round 70 at the second stage site Southern Hills Plantation. “It is always the most pressure. If you miss here you’re going to the Hooters (Tour) or wherever. But if you get through here you have a card on one of the major tours, and that’s where you want to be.”

Those who advance out this week’s six second stage sites to the finale later this month in the California desert, do so secure in the knowledge that they have a job next year, whether it is playing for millions on the PGA Tour or thousands on the Web.com Tour.

The 500 or so players who set out this week in second stage largely have no such assurances. In simplest terms an exemption system that is riddled with loopholes is mercilessly simplified by the Draconian reality of second stage.

Consider Frank Lickliter, the 2007 Q-School medalist and two-time Tour winner, who played just nine events in the Big Leagues in 2012 and finished 201st on the money list. Unless Lickliter advances to final stage, an option that took a body blow when he opened with a 71 on Wednesday, he will have limited status in 2013 on either the PGA or Web.com tours.

It’s why Billy Hurley III spent the weekend gazing at a computer screen after missing the cut at the Tour’s season finale at Walt Disney World. The former Navy officer began the week at Disney 146th on the money list, missed the cut with rounds of 74-76 and finished the season 151st in earnings, $165 outside the top 150 which would have exempted him into the final stage of Q-School and given him partial Tour status in 2013.

“I was surprised I dropped out (of the top 150),” said Hurley, who opened with a 67 at Southern Hills Plantation and is two strokes behind front-runner Brian Duncan. “On Friday I was 152nd, but I figured some guys would cool off. On Saturday I was 149th for most of the day and waking up Sunday morning I thought I would be at 150.”

Instead, Hurley found himself on the wrong end of a $165 pencil whipping. For the price of a bad driver, or a good round of golf, Hurley is playing with precious little by way of a safety net this week in west Florida.

Although his finish on the Tour money list would give him some status in 2013 on the Web.com Tour enduring another sleepless second stage wasn’t the ending he envisioned to his rookie campaign.

“It’s a big deal to get through second stage,” Hurley said. “I did it in 2010 and it’s huge. You feel like you have something.”

How big? Just ask Letzig who ran himself into the ground trying to make sure he had something, anything really, to cling to next season.

Following a lackluster few years Letzig began 2012 re-energized thanks to his work with a sports psychologist and a better attitude, but that didn’t translate into better play.

After missing more weekends than he made through the first six months of the year on the Web.com Tour, Letzig found himself perched at “fifty-something” on the secondary circuit’s money list. If he finished outside the top 60 he would have no status, anywhere, in 2013.

“I was just battling to stay inside the top 60 and I was just a zombie,” said Letzig, who played seven consecutive weeks to close the season. “I really don’t remember the year. I hate to complain when you play golf for a living, but it was too much golf.”

Letzig finished the year 58th in Web.com earnings and stormed out to the clubhouse lead early Wednesday at Southern Hills Plantation thanks, at least in part, to the occupational solace his season-ending money marathon delivered.

“It’s different this year not playing for a job. Second stage is so hard to get through. There is a lot of pressure if you come here without a job,” Letzig said following his round at Southern Hills Plantation, an idyllic Pete Dye design located roughly halfway between lost and the middle of nowhere.

The rolling layout is so remote one feels like they must have taken a wrong turn on the journey out, much like many of the careers that were on display on Wednesday. It was impossible, for example, to ignore the dichotomy of Daniel Chopra’s spotless Lamborghini in the players’ parking lot on Wednesday.

During a brief two-month span in 2007-08 Chopra was arguably the hottest player on the planet, winning the ’07 Ginn sur Mer Classic in October and following that triumph eight weeks later with his second Tour tilt at the season-opener in Kapalua.

Since then, however, Chopra hasn’t finished in the top 3 at a Tour event and he missed 15 of 21 cuts in 2012 to finish 188th in earnings. It’s a similar story for Robert Karlsson, Lee Janzen and Arjun Atwal, who all are playing for a job this week at an event that defies conventional wisdom.

The final stage of Q-School may be the final arbiter of job security on Tour, but it is the subtle sting of second stage that keeps players up at night.