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Q-School Mercifully Comes to a Close

PGA Tour

WINTER GARDEN, Fla. – Adding insult to infinite injury Mother Nature piled on the assembled masses on Monday at PGA Tour Q-School.

A bitterly cold joke, or an apropos conclusion to the game’s most punishing marathon. You decide. Either way 40 degrees and 30 mph gusts are no way to make a living, particularly when you’re trying to make a living.

“It’s a lot like a root canal, it just takes longer,” said Gary Woodland, who joined a class of 29 that will advance to the PGA Tour in 2011.

Woodland should know he underwent a real root canal on Tuesday afternoon before embarking on professional golf’s version of the procedure. He’s also dealt with more than his share of pain in a short and injury-plagued career.

In August 2009 the hard-swinging former basketball player had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder and now admits he returned to golf too soon in an attempt to take advantage of friendly courses. As a result he failed to convert his eight medical exemption starts into a Tour card. All of which made this week’s performance at Orange County National that much more special.

The pain, Woodland explained while bracing himself against a frigid breeze, is most acute when it’s cold.

“The U.S. Open was really cold and I was first out and it hurt,” said Woodland, who finished at 12 under to tie for 11th, six strokes behind medalist Billy Mayfair. “But now it feels fine. It took me almost a year to start feeling healthy again.”

Not to split hairs, but “healthy” for Woodland is a relative concept. The former college point guard has always played hurt, it’s what you do. “But this game is different,” he admits only half begrudgingly.

“Healthy” for Woodland is swinging at about 70 percent said his swing coach Randy Smith. That Orange County National’s twin courses are a bomber’s paradise, the likes of J.B. Holmes and Dustin Johnson qualified here in the past, gives an indication of how long Woodland is even at 70 percent.

Not that Smith was going to allow him to be any more aggressive than that.

“I told him the Superman cape stays in the bag until he reads the instruction manual,” Smith joked.

But then not even Superman could have fared better at Q-School. The fall classic is the professional equivalent of Kyptonite for aspiring Tour types. Swings feel different, nerves react strangely and putts rarely drop when you need them to.

As Monday’s sixth round inched toward a chilly conclusion the week’s winners and losers had strangely similar appearances.

“A little more than a year ago I was at my worst,” said Brazil’s Alexandre Rocha, who finished at 10 under to secure his first trip to the Tour. “Technique-wise I was completely lost and my mental approach was an absolute disaster.”

Now he’s a Tour member. Rocha is fluent in five languages, but his long-awaited exhale was universally understood.

A stroke behind Rocha was Scott Gordon who appeared poised on the number at 10 under par when he missed a 3-footer for par at the last. Shell-shocked, Gordon stood outside the scoring trailer for 10 minutes nervously checking his iPhone.

“I felt like I did a really good job of keeping my emotions in check, but that closing stretch is tough,” said Gordon, who tied with three others at 9 under to secure the final Tour cards.

Young Kyle Stanley couldn’t say the same. After a sloppy bogey at Crooked Cat’s eighth hole, Stanley launched his drive to 20 feet for eagle at the par-4 ninth and cruised the rest of the way to a 4-under 68 and a Tour card.

“It means so much,” said Stanley as he struggled with his emotions. “It was tough to keep from crying out there today.”

Q-School will do that, although the jagged emotional edges have been dulled over time by a system riddled with loopholes. There was a time when the top 25 and ties celebrated on Monday and the rest of the field started working on alternative revenue streams for the coming year.

But now thanks to partial Tour status (Nos. 126-150 on the 2010 money list could play between 15 to 20 events next year on Tour) and the Nationwide Tour the abyss that once defined Q-School resembles more of a rolling hill, with varying degrees of disaster.

But the shades of grey that regulate Tour status don’t make the 108-hole slog any easier. As the final groups made their way up the closing holes one Tour official observed flatly, “I hate this week.”

Jarrod Lyle, back on Tour following a closing 4-under 68 to finish in fifth place, provided a collective epitaph to a tournament made even more demanding by Mother Nature, “I’m so bloody glad it’s over.”