Tales from Q School

Inside Golf's Fifth Major


By John Feinstein

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From the author of Raise a Fist, Take a Knee and A Good Walk Spoiled, this "must-read" national bestseller takes you inside the dramatic world of the highest-pressure golf tournament in the world (Tampa Tribune).  

It is the tournament that separates champions from mortals. It is the starting point for the careers of future legends and can be the final stop on the down escalator for fading stars. The annual PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament is one of the most grueling competitions in any sport. Every fall, veterans and talented hopefuls sweat through six rounds of hell at Q school, as the tournament is universally known, to get a shot at the PGA Tour, vying for the 30 slots available.

The grim reality: If you don't make it through Q school, you're not on the PGA tour. You're out. And those who make it to the six-day finals are the lucky ones: hundreds more players fail to get through the equally grueling first two stages of the event. John Feinstein tells the story of the players who compete for these coveted positions in the 2005 Q school as only he can. With arresting accounts from the players, established winners, rising stars, the defeated, and the endlessly hopeful, America's favorite sportswriter unearths the inside story behind the PGA Tour's brutal all-or-nothing competition.



Last Dance

Next Man Up

Let Me Tell You a Story

Caddy for Life


The Punch

The Last Amateurs

The Majors

A March to Madness

A Civil War

A Good Walk Spoiled

Play Ball

Hard Courts

Forever's Team

A Season Inside

A Season on the Brink

Last Shot (A Final Four Mystery)

Vanishing Act (A U.S. Open Mystery)

Running Mates (A Mystery)

Winter Games (A Mystery)

This is dedicated to the memory of absent loved ones:

Tom Mickle

Hymie Perlo

Red Auerbach

Vivian Richman



I N 1995, WHEN A Good Walk Spoiled was published, I was thrilled by how many readers seemed to get caught up in the lives of the players about whom I had written.

What fascinated me was that most of the comments I received about the book weren't about the sections on Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, or even Nick Price, Paul Azinger, or Davis Love III—all stars who generously shared both time and thoughts with me during my research.

The names that came up most often in conversation were Paul Goydos, Brian Henninger, and Jeff (not John) Cook. All were PGA Tour rookies in 1993 when I began my research; all had to go back to Qualifying School at the end of that year. Goydos got his card back that December and has remained on the tour ever since, winning the Bay Hill Invitational in 1996 before injuries and a divorce clouded his career. He began 2007 with a stunning victory at the Sony Open in Hawaii, capping a remarkable comeback. Henninger missed getting his card by one shot at the end of '93 but won the Deposit Guaranty Golf Classic in 1994. He has bounced from the PGA Tour to the Nationwide Tour and back the past few years and found himself back at Q School in the fall of 2005.

Jeff Cook's story may be the one that most clearly defines how cruel a world professional golf can be. He arrived at the 17th hole on the final day of the '93 Q School at PGA West sitting squarely on "the number"—the score that, even though there are no scoreboards at Q School, everyone somehow knows will be needed to qualify for the PGA Tour. After a twenty-minute wait on the tee, Cook hit a perfect six-iron to an island green that flew right over the flag and was probably no more than six inches from sucking back to the pin, which would have set up a possible birdie, an easy par. Instead, the ball just hung on the top shelf of the green, leaving a brutal downhill birdie putt that he rolled four feet past the cup. He missed coming back by about an inch, and that inch was the difference between getting his card back and not getting it back. He had one final chance at the difficult 18th hole, but his 20-foot birdie putt swerved just low of the hole, making it official: he had finished one shot outside the number.

He never played on the PGA Tour again.

After several more years on the Nike Tour, Cook realized his time had passed and made the hard decision to become a weekend golfer. He was hired by Mizuno as a club rep, which allows him to make a good living and spend three days a week at tour sites, still hanging out with old friends.

Whenever I see him, usually standing on the range at a tour event, we talk about the "old days" and laugh about things that happened during Jeff's one full year on the tour, frequently retelling the story about the day Jeff was paired with Tom Watson in the third round in Los Angeles and caught himself wondering what Watson would think of his putting stroke as he lined up a birdie attempt on number one. Three putts later, he walked off the green with a bogey and noticed that Watson was standing with his back turned to the green, practicing his putting stroke. It was then that Jeff realized there was only one putting stroke Watson had any interest in, and it wasn't Jeff's.

"You know, I feel like I'm very lucky," Jeff often says. "There are a lot of guys who are like me: pretty good players, but, for one reason or another, they aren't going to be able to get out here and be consistent money winners. They're going to play the Nationwide [formerly known as the Ben Hogan, the Nike, and the Buy.com Tour] and make some kind of living, or play the Hooters [Tour] or mini-tours until they run out of time and money. I think I knew when it was my time. I never got to the point where I hated doing it but kept on because there was nothing else I could do. That's why I'm lucky."

Cook, who grew up in Indiana and graduated from Indiana University, still dreams of someday being the golf coach at his alma mater. But for now, he enjoys his life, and he doesn't wake up every morning wondering if his golf dreams are nothing more than fantasies.

"If nothing else, I can say I did get there," he said. "I was a full-fledged PGA Tour player. I wish it had lasted longer, but who doesn't? I think every athlete faces the question at some point about when it's time to quit. It's especially hard in golf because there are stories about guys who flail around for years and then find it. Look at Tom Lehman.

"But for every Tom Lehman, there are a thousand guys out there thinking they're Tom Lehman. The problem is, only one of them—if that—is going to be right."

IN THE BACK OF my mind, I always wanted to go back to Q School. In the years after A Good Walk Spoiled, Q School became a sort of cult story among golf fans and the media. The Golf Channel began televising the finals in 1996, and PGA Tour Productions put together an annual one-hour documentary that aired on NBC. David Gould wrote a book called Q School Confidential that focused on the 1998 finals but was more about Q School history and lore than one particular year at Q School.

When I went to PGA West for the 1993 Q School finals, three other print reporters were there. In 2005, in addition to the Golf Channel, there were at least thirty writers on the premises of the Orange County National Golf Center and Lodge in Winter Garden, Florida. That isn't exactly a Masters turnout, but it does reflect a quantum leap in interest.

In spite of the growth in coverage and interest, most people who follow golf still think the six-round finals that are on television are Q School. In fact, the case can be made that the finals are now the least pressurized aspect of Q School, because everyone in the finals knows he will have some kind of job playing golf the next year. If he isn't one of the thirty players (and ties—those tied for the last available spot) who make it to the PGA Tour, he will have, at the very least, some status on the triple-A Nationwide Tour. When the Nationwide Tour began in 1990 (as the Ben Hogan Tour), the average weekly purse was $100,000. Now it is closer to $550,000. That is still less than 15 percent of what PGA Tour golfers play for each week, but enough for some players to make a living.

That doesn't mean there isn't heartbreak at the finals. Every year, there are players who come up a shot or two short, often for a bizarre or hard-to-envision reason. Almost anyone who has followed golf for more than fifteen minutes has seen Joe Daley's two-foot putt on the 17th hole at PGA West (the same hole that brought Jeff Cook grief) in 2000 go right in the middle of the hole and then, somehow, pop back out, as if someone had pressed a spring underneath the cup.

"To me that's the quintessential Q School moment," said Casey Martin, the disabled player who successfully took the PGA Tour to the Supreme Court so that he could use a golf cart in tournaments. "I still remember seeing that happen and thinking to myself, 'There are two days left in this thing, but he's going to miss by one shot.' Sure enough, that's what happened. That's Q School right there."

Martin knows about Q School. He went through it eight times, made the finals four times, but was never successful making the PGA Tour via the finals. His only year on tour, 2000, was the result of a 14th-place finish on the Nike Tour. In those days, the top 15 players on the Nike got PGA Tour cards. Nowadays, the top 20 players on that tour, currently sponsored by Nationwide Insurance, make the PGA Tour.

The presence of the Nationwide 20 has cut the number of spots available at Q School. Once, 50 players and ties received tour cards. Now it is 30 and ties—this at a time when about 1,200 players sign up each year, even though the fee to play rose from $100 in 1965 to $4,500 in 2005, with a bump to $5,000 for those who would have to play first stage in 2006. The first year of Q School, 49 players showed up, and 17 cards were issued. But that was a long time ago in golf history.

What makes Q School so fascinating is the breadth of stories. In 2005, the 1,205 players who signed up to play ranged from Larry Mize, the 1987 Masters champion, to a guy whose low round at first stage was an 89. There was one woman in the field, Isabelle Beisiegel, who played for the second straight year and finished last at her first-stage site. And there were all sorts of names familiar to golf fans. When Paul Azinger decided not to play, Mize was the only major champion in the field, but there were past PGA Tour winners, veterans trying to hang on, and, of course, youngsters attempting to make it to "the big tour" for the first time.

Casey Martin was one of those who played in 2005—for the last time. After watching his game go south for several years, he decided to make one final effort to get back to the tour. He worked hard throughout the summer before showing up to play his first stage in Rancho Murieta, California.

The chances of getting from first stage to second stage to the finals and the PGA Tour are pretty close to 100-to-1. Martin knew all that. He also knew that his game wasn't nearly what it once was. But, like a lot of players, he wanted one more shot. He failed to make it through first stage, missing by six shots. Unlike some players who never figure it out, he knew it was time to move on.

"Put it this way, it didn't come as a shock to me," Martin said. "I know for some guys, walking away is impossible—especially if you've ever had success. You just know you're on the verge of a breakthrough. Guys say, 'I'm hitting it great, but I can't make any putts.' Well, last I looked, putting is part of the game. There's always a reason. At some point, you have to look in the mirror and say, 'The reason is that I'm not good enough.' That's not easy for anybody."

Never is that more apparent than at Q School. It is toughest to watch players who have been good enough at some point, because they can make the case that they aren't fooling themselves. They know they have the ability to play on the tour.

"It's the finding it again that's so tough," said Stephen Gangluff, who played on the PGA Tour in 2002 but bounced all the way back to playing first stage in 2005. "I feel as if I have these demons following me around sometimes. I know there's a good player locked up somewhere inside me, but I've got to find a way to chase the demons and let that player out."

One of my more vivid memories from researching this book is of Gangluff sprawled in a chair outside the locker room at the Tournament Players Club (TPC) Tampa Bay, having just shot 75 in the third round of first stage to knock himself out of contention. He couldn't leave the course because the approach of Hurricane Wilma had forced the schedule to be moved up so that the final round would start an hour after the third round began. It was too hot to pound balls on the range, and what was the point anyway? He couldn't bring himself to walk into the dining room and sit with other players who were rehashing their rounds and preparing for the last 18 holes. And he was too much of a professional to do the easy thing and withdraw from the tournament so he could get the hell out of there.

So he sat in that chair, staring into space, hoping, no doubt, that he would wake up at home in bed and find that it had all been a bad dream. Instead, with no chance at all to qualify, he got out of the chair and ground out a 67 in the last round—an effort that still left him six shots and twenty-one players outside the number.

You have to hope that there are happier days ahead for someone like Gangluff—and for many other players I encountered along the way. Q School is filled with sad stories, because, let's face it, most of the players who enter aren't going to make it to the PGA Tour when they hand out the cards in December. In fact, most of the players who enter Q School will never make it to the tour. Only about one-third of them will ever make it to the finals, and about half will never make it out of first stage.

Think about that for a moment. There are no bad players at the second stage of Q School. You might be able to fake your way into first stage—although the tour has cracked down on frauds in recent years—but you can't fake your way through first stage and into second.

Most of those who sign up for first stage are superb players. There are more than 30 million golfers in the United States. Perhaps 2,000 can legitimately think about trying to make a living playing the game. Maybe 500 of those players are good enough to play somewhere—PGA Tour, Nationwide Tour, NGA/Hooters Tour, or the mini-tours—and pay their bills. Half of that number are good enough to play regularly on the PGA Tour or the Nationwide on a steady basis, and, of course, only a handful end up becoming millionaires and owning their own airplanes.

And in case you haven't been paying close attention, there's only one Tiger Woods.

Even among that tiny gaggle good enough to make it to the PGA Tour, there is absolutely no guarantee of continued success. Each year, most of the players who make it through Q School to the tour find themselves back at Q School the following year. At the end of 2005, eleven of the thirty-five players who had earned their cards at the 2004 Q School finished in the top 125 on the money list to retain full privileges for 2006. Three—Sean O'Hair, Lucas Glover, and Jason Bohn—won tournaments, guaranteeing themselves exemptions through 2007.

It isn't the least bit uncommon for ex–tour players like Martin and Gangluff to find themselves back at first stage and failing to make it through. Mike Grob, another ex–tour player, did make it through the same first stage that Gangluff failed in Tampa, but he did so carrying his own bag because he didn't want to pay for a caddy for the week. And second stage? The six sites where second stage events are held each year may be the six most tension-filled golf venues in the world. The number of quality players forced to play second stage is staggering. The players in the 2005 second stage included multiple PGA Tour winners. Larry Mize, Bill Glasson, Steve Stricker, Dan Forsman, Brian Henninger, and Blaine McCallister, as well as more than a dozen others who had won at least one PGA Tour event.

Success in professional golf is more fleeting than in just about any other sport. When a successful pitcher like Steve Blass suddenly can't throw strikes anymore and sees his career flame out, it is such a big story that thirty years later, any pitcher with a sudden case of wildness is referred to as having "Blass disease," and everyone in baseball knows exactly what that means.

In golf, very good players get some form of "Blass disease" all the time. Some get the yips with their putter, others with their driver. Still others simply can't score anymore. Most of the time, there's no explanation for what makes golfers fall to earth. They all think there's an explanation—a swing change, an equipment change, an instructor change—but if it were that simple, they would all straighten themselves out and be back on top in no time.

Some do find the answer. Steve Stricker, who has won three times on the tour and almost won the PGA Championship in 1998, couldn't make it through the 2005 Q School finals. But he got a sponsor exemption into the Shell Houston Open in April 2006, shot a final-round 65 to finish third, and began to play like the young star he had once been. He finished in a tie for sixth place at the U.S. Open and had made more than $1 million halfway through the 2006 season. He would not have to go back to Q School at the end of 2006. "I hope I never have to go again," he said.

Q School is not a place anyone wants to go back to, but most players will tell you they're glad they had the experience at least once. "Think about this," said Steve Pate, a six-time winner on the tour who has been back to Q School several times in recent years. "Have you ever encountered any player who told you he didn't have a Q School story?"

The answer to that is no, unless you count Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard, and, more recently, Ryan Moore, all current players who were so good coming out of college that they managed to avoid Q School. A number of top foreign players also have been able to steer around it.

But just about everyone else who has joined the tour since 1965 has been there, and they all have stories to tell—some funny, some sad, many both. There were 1,205 entrants in the 2005 Q School, and every one of them had a story to tell. Time and space have limited me to a relative handful of those stories, but watching all three stages and hearing stories about Q Schools present and past was a remarkable experience.

There has been some talk among golf people that Q School's time has passed, that with the growing importance of the Nationwide Tour, it should be the sole proving ground for the PGA Tour. After all, they argue, a full year of golf played on a competitive tour proves more about a player than one, two, or three weeks of Q School in the late fall.

That may be true. But Q School should continue to be part of the PGA Tour. As heartbreaking as it can be, it also produces the most unlikely and uplifting stories one is likely to encounter anywhere in golf. Ask anyone who has watched the last round of a major championship up close and the last round of Q School up close which one has more human drama, and the answer will always be the same: Q School. And if you, like me, happened to be fortunate enough to be standing next to Jay Haas on the final day of the 2005 Q School while he watched his son Bill line up a four-foot birdie putt that would either put him on the PGA Tour or leave him one shot away, you wouldn't even have to think twice about your answer.

Watching Jay Haas watch Bill Haas is the kind of moment you can only see at Q School.

The Fifth Major.


Dreams (and Nightmares) Come True

T HE DREAM IS ALWAYS THE SAME. It starts with Tommy Tolles standing on the ninth tee of the Panther Lake course at Orange County National Golf Center and Lodge on a windy Monday afternoon in December. He has a three-wood in his hands and is wondering: "Is eleven the number? Could it slide to ten? Maybe it will go to 12. Do I really need a three-wood? The hole is playing downwind, and the fairways are baked from the wind and lack of rain. A par might very well be all I need." For a moment, he wishes that instead of his pal Jamie Rowland, he had a tour caddy on his bag. Nothing against Rowland, who had walked 18 grueling holes every day for six days just to try to help Tolles, but this is one of those times when talking to someone who has been through this sort of golf-trauma would be helpful.

Tolles finally gets over the ball, three-wood in his hands. He takes the club back, and he can hear from the sound as he follows through that he has caught the ball flush, that, in golf lingo, he's hit it right on the screws. The ball screams straight down the middle of the fairway, several yards to the right of where Tolles was aiming. The left rough, he knew, was safe; he could get the ball on the green from there. But there was water on the right.

The ball drifts a little bit right, and Tolles feels his heart pounding. It hits the ground and bounces—hard—to the right. It is bouncing in the direction of the water, and because the fairway is so burned-out, there's nothing to slow it down. It gets closer and closer. By now Tolles knows what is going to happen. It disappears into the lake. "No!" Tolles wants to scream. It can't be in the water. Only it is, and he knows, at that moment, that all his work to get back onto the PGA Tour has been for naught.

He wakes up, drenched in sweat. Even sleeping on top of the covers, he's covered in sweat.

That isn't the worst part, though. The worst part is knowing he is going to have the dream again.

And again.

IT IS LIKE THAT every single year at what is now officially called the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, although to everyone connected with golf, it is known simply as "Q School." Once upon a time, there was a "school" aspect to the event, with players forced to sit in classrooms to learn rules, etiquette, and teaching techniques, since, once upon a time, all golf pros were expected to be teachers as well as players.

Every year at Q School, there are stories of heartbreak. At the 2005 Q School finals, Tolles was one of those stories. An accomplished player who has finished as high as 16th on the PGA Tour money list, Tolles was trying to fight his way back onto the tour after years of swing changes and frustration had landed him in golf's minor leagues. He had struggled for almost five and a half rounds, staying on the fringes of contention more because of smarts and experience than because of the way he was hitting the ball.

"I had pretty much given up hope to get back to the tour midway through the last day," he said later. "I was just trying to make sure I had full Nationwide [the tour's highest minor league] status. Then I birdied 18 [he had started his round on the 10th tee] and hit a four-iron to four feet on number one. Suddenly, it clicked in. Two hours later, I'm on the ninth tee, and I've birdied six of nine holes and I'm right there with that three-wood in my hands."

Which is where the dream of returning to the tour ended and the recurring nightmare began. After his ball found the water, he double-bogeyed the hole. His wife in tears, Tolles was finished except for the dream that would not go away.

For Grant Waite, another accomplished veteran, there was no need to rally late, no reason to believe that the week would end up as anything other than a ticket back to the place where he had happily made his living for most of a dozen years. He had steadily played his way into a comfortable position, well inside the number that would put him back on the PGA Tour. With nine holes to play, he was 16 under par for the event, which, he figured, put him in about 10th place. Among the 165 players who had made it to the Q School finals, the top 30 (and ties) would make it to the 2006 tour. There are no scoreboards on the golf course at Q School, but the players always have a sense of what the number needed to make the top 30 is going to be. With the wind blowing steadily and the golf course playing hard, Waite and everyone else knew that the number that day would be around 10 or 11 under par.

Sixteen under, after a very solid 32 on the front nine, certainly felt comfortable. But then Waite somehow four-putted the 10th hole for a double bogey, and he suddenly felt a little shaky. Another bogey and then another, and now he had no control over his golf swing or his emotions. It took him 42 shots to maneuver his way around the back nine, and when he finally holed out on 18, his hands were shaking and his face was chalk white. He wasn't so much angry as stunned. His wife, Lea, who had walked every hole with him for six days, was in a state of shock, too.

"People simply don't understand what this is like unless they've gone through it," she had said earlier in the week. "There's no tension in sports quite like this tension."

Her husband agreed. "You aren't asked to do anything at Q School as a golfer that you aren't capable of doing," he said. "But you have to do it this week. Not next week, not last week, this week. There's no appeal, no way to get a second chance. And there's very little margin for error. Too many guys playing for too few spots. You can't count on playing well for six straight days, but you have to make sure your bad days aren't really bad. One over, two over, you can survive. You just can't throw in a six-over or seven-under day."

Waite had followed the script perfectly the first five days, hanging close to par the first two days when he was fighting his swing, then playing the next three rounds at 13 under par with one round to play. "The key now," he said late on the penultimate afternoon, "is to not think about any number, just go out and play well tomorrow."

Easily said. Not so easily executed. What is more difficult in life than not thinking? Especially when you tell yourself not to think?

For nine holes on that final day, Waite didn't think. But the instant he double-bogeyed the 10th hole, he started thinking. The result was that he came up one shot short—or, more accurately, one shot long—of where he needed to be. Thirty-two players finished 108 holes of golf in 422 or fewer shots. Waite was one of ten players, including Dan Forsman, a five-time winner on the PGA Tour, who needed 423 shots. In many cases, that 423rd shot was less than a foot long, a tap-in that the player knew would doom him to a tour where the total prize money each week is far less than the weekly winner's share on the PGA Tour. When the 2006 PGA Tour opened in January, the purse for the first full-field event of the year was $5.1 million, with the winner getting $918,000. When the Nationwide Tour began play in Panama in February, the purse was $550,000, with the winner receiving $99,000. The leading money winner on the Nationwide Tour in 2005 was Troy Matteson, who made $495,009. There were 151 players who earned more than that on the PGA Tour—including 79 who made more than $1 million in prize money for the year.

The PGA Tour is a dream world of big-money contracts for equipment and endorsements; courtesy cars and courtesy phones; people standing by to grant your every wish, whether it is a shopping spree for your wife or luxury box seats to a ball game. The Nationwide Tour is real life: searching for cheap airfares or driving from event to event; looking for the best rate the Fairfield Inn or Hampton Inn or Holiday Inn can give you. It is playing in front of hundreds instead of thousands. It is being shocked by how much it costs to refuel your car versus how much it costs to refuel your plane.

It is 423 shots instead of 422.

"It hurts, it really hurts," Dan Forsman said. "I think it hurts more when you've known what life is like on the PGA Tour. To say we don't get spoiled would be silly. We do get spoiled—big-time. Then you put everything you have into getting yourself back there, heart and soul for six days, and you come up an inch or two short. It's tough to take."

Like Tolles, Forsman had rallied late on the final day, making three birdies on the final nine of the week to get to 10 under par. "When you've done this for as long as I have, you have a feel for what the number is going to be," he said. "You don't need a scoreboard. You can tell by the weather conditions, by the condition of the golf course. Your gut just tells you. Some guys think they know the number. In my gut, I knew the number was going to be 11—just knew


On Sale
May 2, 2007
Hachette Audio

John Feinstein

About the Author

John Feinstein is the author of forty-five books, including two #1 New York Times bestsellers, A Season on the Brink, and A Good Walk Spoiled. His mystery novel, Last Shot, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for mystery writing in the Young Adult category. He is a member of six Halls of Fame and is a contributing columnist for The Washington Post. Additionally, he does color commentary for VCU basketball, George Mason basketball, and Longwood basketball. He is also does commentary for the Navy radio network and is a regular on The Sports Junkies in his hometown of Washington, DC.

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