The Last Q-School


LAKELAND, Fla. – Welcome to The Last Q-School. It’s the final time that qualifying school offers direct access to the PGA Tour. It’s the final time that, in theory, a golfer can go from washing carts to courtesy cars. This is a place for up-and-comers and also-rans and has-beens, sure, but it will always be a place for dreamers, too.

Meet Anthony Aruta. He’s a 32-year-old club pro from Long Island. He was playing so well in area tournaments this summer, he decided on a whim that this would be the year that he finally attempts Q-School. “It’s worth a try, right?” he asked.

Only problem: It’s expensive – like, $6,000 expensive (if you have to go through pre-qualifying, which he did), and Aruta didn’t have that kind of disposable income. A few members from the Mill River Club in Brooksville stepped in and offered to foot the bill.

PGA Tour Q-School first stage sites and scores

“If this doesn’t work out, then I’ll go do what I normally do,” Aruta said Tuesday, after an opening-round 69 at Grasslands Golf & Country Club in the first stage of qualifying. “And if it does, well, I guess I’ll have a different life for a while.”

A different life? The thought still seems unimaginable to David Branshaw.

This is his 16th Q-School. Sixteenth. He only arrived at that number after counting on his fingers for 45 seconds. He apologized for the delay. After a while, you see, the sites and the checks and the scores begin to run together.

“There’s always a little bit of nerves,” he said of Q-School. “You gotta perform in this tournament – there’s no next week. You gotta do it this week.”

This has probably been the most difficult year of Branshaw’s career. His numbers aren’t gaudy, but he’s one of the most accomplished players competing at this site.

He’s made 191 starts on the Tour, winning twice – most recently in 2005, at the Tour Championship – and amassing more than $1.05 million in earnings. (He’s also earned another million and change on the PGA Tour.) Just last year, Branshaw was playing full-time on the then-Nationwide Tour, but he lost his card after missing the cut in 15 of 24 starts.

Now, he can’t even get a spot in those same fields. Now, he’s stuck playing one- and two-day events on the West Florida Golf Tour. Now, he’s just one of 78 players who hopes the putter cooperates for four days.

“It’s been a long year for me,” he sighed.

On Tuesday, Branshaw, 43, wore a yellow shirt and baggy khaki pants. He surveyed chip shots with a towel slung over his left shoulder and a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. He shot 71.

A caddie? Nope, not here. Couldn’t find one. All the good loopers are in Jacksonville, he says, for the event. Or they’re in Georgia, for the Fall Series tournament. “I could get one of my buddies at home,” Branshaw said, “but he’s working. He’s got a job.”

So, instead, Branshaw dropped $200 on a new Sun Mountain push cart. And after each round, he’ll break the thing down and cram it into the trunk of his car and make the 50-minute drive back home to Tampa, which is fine, except it serves as a reminder that he doesn’t want to be at Q-School in the first place.

“It’s confusion,” he said. “I don’t understand it. I had a bad year (in 2011), but so what? I always had a safety net, and they took it away. Is there no category for someone who has made so many cuts (111)? I don’t think I should be here.

“It’s very frustrating, you know, but that’s golf. If you don’t play good, you don’t have a job. Such is life, right? You don’t do good in your job, they can fire you, right? There are no more second chances.”

No more second chances. Joey Lamielle doesn’t quite believe that, at least not yet.

This is his sixth Q-School, and he still has vivid memories of his first one, in 2006, right here in Lakeland, the fall after he graduated from Florida Gulf Coast University.

He was so nervous standing on the first tee on the first day, he said, “I couldn’t feel my legs.” That day he shot 79, but he would rally over the final three days to advance. Two years ago, he needed to run off seven consecutive birdies – 90-foot putts, near-hole-outs from the fairway – just to make it on the number. Now, though, he’s 30 years old, a mini-tour regular, and a guy “constantly looking for the next buck to go out and play.”

So, seriously, why does he keep attempting Q-School?

“Because I’m stupid,” he said after an opening 71, only slightly joking. “It’s a dream, you know? Each year, I feel like I’m closer and closer and closer. Without a doubt, it’s a grind. I can’t tell you how many times, especially in the past two years, that I’ve said, ‘I’ll give it one more week and I’m done.’ Absolutely there have been times when I’ve wanted to pack it in and I’m frustrated and I’m pissed. But that’s golf and life.

“Every time I get to that low point, it seems like I’ll go shoot 64 out of the blue. It keeps teasing you. The man upstairs has a sense of humor, I guess. He likes to see how many times he can kick me in the face before I don’t get back up. But there’s no quit in me, man. No quit.”