LA QUINTA, Calif. – On the eve of the final round of the 1993 Qualifying Tournament Shaun Micheel, a little-known first-year professional at the time, joined his family for the 10-minute ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the top of Mt. San Jacinto.
From 8,500 feet the future major champion gazed out onto the Coachella Valley and mulled his professional fate while his mother, Donna, slipped away in pursuit of some divine intervention.
“I’m not an overly religious person, but I remember the night before my mom and dad and sister and I took the tram to the top of the mountain and there was a little bit of snow and they had a really brightly lit cross,” said Micheel, his voice cracking as his mind raced back nearly two decades. “My mom told me the next day after (he earned his Tour card) she said a few prayers.”
Whether it was Donna Micheel’s plea or her son’s game that answered the call doesn’t really matter; the result was a six-birdie, one-bogey 67, his lowest round of the week, that left Micheel bound for the PGA Tour.
Monday’s final round of Q-School marks the end of professional golf’s longest week and, more noteworthy, the end of an era on the PGA Tour, which transitions to a new qualifying process next season and relegates the Fall Classic to a feeder tournament for the secondary Web.com Tour.
No longer will players have direct access to the Tour via Q-School and that reality left many Fall Classic veterans nostalgic for an event that has doled out heroics and heartbreak with equal abandon since 1965.
That’s not to say the event will be universally missed. “Couldn’t be happier it’s going away because I’ve never made it (to the Tour) through Q-School,” said Jeff Gove, who is making his ninth trip to final stage this week.
Gove’s take is shared by many, but that doesn’t discount nor diminish the memories at one of the most unique events in all of sport.
Just ask the veterans, the players who – for all the wrong reasons – have spent a lifetime coming to grips with the capriciousness of an event that has just a single relevant tenet – perform or go home.
To call a player’s relationship with Q-School bittersweet is an understatement. Few have sailed through the gauntlet and never looked back. The hard competitive truth is for many players the Fall Classic is an annual staple, like Christmas and taxes, and that kind of negative feedback takes a toll.
“If you fail at something for so long there’s going to be some, ‘Jeez, I can’t do this,’” Patrick Sheehan said. “But if you get through one time . . .”
Sheehan, for better or worse, is something of the elder statesman at this year’s finale. This will mark his eighth trip to final stage and the last edition is an apropos bookend considering his first attempt was in 2000 at PGA West.
For Sheehan, Q-School lowlights are ubiquitous, like cloudless days in the Coachella Valley and the Groundhog Day nature of the six-round grind. The bad times seem to blend into a blur of selective memories.
The good times, however, are like beacons that help ease the sting of failure.
“The weather helped me last year,” Sheehan recalled. “I shot 2 over in perfect weather, 100th place. Second day I played OK in the wind but didn’t move up and third day is another perfect day and I didn’t move up. But then the wind just blew and I shot 71 in the fourth round and shot up.
“If the wind didn’t blow those would have been just decent rounds in a dome. A 71 normally out here is nothing. You’re losing ground. But I jumped 45 guys . . . with a 71.”
Micheel’s Q-School moment came during that first turn in ’93 when the rotation was the Nicklaus Tournament Course and the Dunes layout at nearby La Quinta Golf & Tennis Resort.
“It was like winning the PGA,” he remembered. “In 108 holes of golf there are going to be some great moments and some bad ones, but I look back and that was how I first got started on the PGA Tour.”
Tom Pernice Jr., the oldest player in this week’s field, is making his seventh start at final stage and like Micheel it was his first start, a successful attempt in 1985, that stands out.
“First time I made it we were playing at Grenelefe and Tom Sieckmann and I were rooming together and we finished first and second (respectively). That’s a pretty good story,” Pernice said. “I’ve missed before; I made double at Bear Lakes a couple of years ago (2009) to miss by one on the last hole; that would be a bad one.”
And final stage is hardly the lone domain of heartbreak. Many players’ minds race back to second stage when asked their quintessential Q-School moment. That’s where, at least in recent years, careers are ended for many. Get through second stage and you’re assured employment, be it in the big leagues or on the Web.com Tour. Fail and it’s another year on the mini-tours, or worse.
“I probably remember misses at second stage more than I remember misses at finals,” Gove said. “To miss at second stage is just demoralizing. You feel like, should I really be playing golf? You go home and take three or four days to pick yourself off the floor and decide, yeah, I’m going to keep going.”
Q-School will keep going as well, but for better or worse it will never be the same.