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Once hardened by close calls, Sullivan embraces Q-School nightmare

Patrick Sullivan
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Patrick Sullivan has fallen a shot short enough times on the golf course that most golfers would’ve lost track. The latest close call, Sunday at Tour Q-School’s final stage, easily could’ve been the most heartbreaking.

Sullivan, a 35-year-old from Little Rock, Ark., was in position to finish among the top 40 and ties and earn exempt status on the Tour for a second straight season. But after putting his ball into the water on the back nine and later missing a 5-footer on the final hole, Sullivan finished just outside of the number, settling for conditional status.

Once upon a time Sullivan might’ve blamed his failure on something else; in this instance, maybe a questionable hole location (Sullivan heard as many as five others had a similar fate on the 14th hole at Whirlwind Golf Club’s Cattail Course). But while devastated, Sullivan knew he ultimately wouldn’t be defined by this moment.

After his round, he took to social media with incredible perspective and typed out a self-deprecating, humorous post.

“I was wondering if anyone had ever putted it into the water on the back nine to miss by one?” Sullivan asked on Twitter. “If not … dibs.”

“Three months ago, that would not have happened,” Sullivan said. “I’m in a different place now.”

Final results: 2018 Tour Q-School final stage

Sullivan played three seasons at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, where he was a Sun Belt Conference champion and finished a shot from advancing to the NCAA Championship as a redshirt junior. He decided to skip his final year of eligibility after graduating in 2005, and instead accepted a six-figure paycheck working as an assistant for billionaire Sidney Frank, who is credited with creating Grey Goose vodka and bringing Jägermeister to the U.S.  

Frank, who loved golf and helped fund the careers of several aspiring pros, died a year later. Frank willed some money to Sullivan, who spent the next four years trying to make it.

Life on the mini-tours was tough. He lost as much as $8,000 when the U.S. Pro Golf Tour, which had promised million-dollar purses, folded. He competed in Q-School, which was then offering PGA Tour cards, every year, but only made it to second stage once. Several times, he was eliminated at first stage by a shot.

By 2010, he decided to settle down. “I was tapped out,” he said. He married his girlfriend, Talia, and took a job as an assistant pro at the Alotian Club in Roland, Ark., and later moved to Pleasant Valley Country Club in Little Rock.

Working 60-hour weeks, though, eventually grew on Sullivan. One day, Talia asked her husband, “You really want to play golf again, don’t you?”

Sullivan re-committed himself to pro golf in 2015, and that year won the Arkansas Open, for a third time. But he still couldn’t get over the Q-School hump. He finished just shy of advancing at first stage in two straight years, by one shot.

Entering last year’s Tour Q-School, Sullivan had decided it would be his last attempt. He delivered, tying for 42nd and earning exempt status on the Tour, by a shot.

“I was in shock,” Sullivan said. “And that was one of the reasons I struggled last season. I never really felt comfortable.”

Sullivan missed 20 of 23 cuts last season, including every cut as he played nine straight weeks to close the year.

“I remember going out to lunch with my wife after Portland and telling her, ‘I’m done. I’m absolutely done,’” Sullivan said. “Mentally, I was fried.”

Talia Sullivan, who has her Master’s degree in therapy, recommended to her husband that he see a therapist. “I was miserable at the time,” Sullivan said. “My self-worth was tied up with how I played.”

Sullivan made it through first stage this fall on the number. By second stage, he started to feel like a new person. For once, he didn’t go to the first tee feeling uncontrollably anxious.

“It was the calmest I’ve ever been going into a week like that,” said Sullivan, who shot 64-64 to close and advanced to final stage, by a shot.

In a final-stage field full of young stars, Sullivan was 7 under and very much in the mix on two golf courses, Whirlwind’s Devil’s Claw being the other, where scores were ridiculously low (Danny Walker medaled at 27 under).

Then he four-putted the first green in Round 3 at Devil’s Claw.

It easily could’ve been a here-we-go-again moment. Instead, Sullivan birdied the next six holes and posted a 64.

“If I hadn’t gone and done my work (in therapy), I wouldn’t have been able to do that,” Sullivan said.

A day later, at Cattail, Sullivan’s mental toughness was challenged even more. With high hopes of retaining his card after birdies at Nos. 12 and 13, Sullivan arrived at the difficult par-4 14th with caution. The night before at dinner, fellow competitor Zack Fisher warned Sullivan of a tricky pin.

“Any shot that lands on the back part of the green will go in the water,” Fisher told Sullivan.

Sullivan bailed out, giving himself a 60-footer from the front of the green. But he wasn’t out of the woods just yet. Sullivan still faced a tough lag, which he put a little too much pace on.

“It just kept going, and going, and going … and I saw it disappear,” Sullivan said.

Splash. Double bogey.

“You’re just kind of in shock,” said Sullivan, who bogeyed the next hole to drop to 14 under. “It was a punch to the gut. All that work I did and all that fighting I did, I lost it on just a freak thing. I don’t think I had ever done that in my life, putting it into the water.”

Yet the thought of choking away another opportunity at Q-School never overtook Sullivan’s mind. He birdied No. 16, made a 30-footer for eagle at the par-5 17th and nearly jarred his approach at the par-4 finishing hole, his ball landing inches away from the cup.

The only thing standing between Sullivan and a spot among the top 40 and ties was a 5-foot birdie putt.

He missed. Again, a shot short.

But this story isn’t about failure. It’s about embracing failure.

Sullivan is hopeful that his conditional status will get him some early starts. Additionally, he plans to ask for some sponsor exemptions and is ready to enter some Monday qualifiers.

Though few, Sullivan will get his opportunities. He doesn’t want to leave anything on the table.

“In hindsight, it may be good,” Sullivan said. “I may only get one start to get into the re-shuffle and make some money, and maybe I can keep that Q-School mentality. The last two years I’ve proven that I play well that way.

“… I’m 35 years old. I’m not a rookie anymore. I don’t know how many more opportunities I’m going to get. But as long as I keep fighting and keep grinding, I know I can play out there.”