Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 2, 2010

Q-School Is In Session

In central Florida, 162 golfers are one-third of the way through six days that will define their coming year and in some cases their careers. It’s the final stage of the PGA Tour’s qualifying school, a six round tournament that got underway on Wednesday at the Orange County National Golf Center.

There is some irony in the setting. The contestants are vying for the chance to play on the most prestigious golf tour in the world. Many of the Tour’s tournaments are played at some of the most exclusive country clubs in the land. But the Q-School finals are being played at a public facility, one at which any hacker willing to part with $69 can tee it up from Monday to Wednesday. Even on the weekends the greens fees only rise to $89.

Actually Orange County National is an ideal venue for the qualifying tournament. It’s a huge facility with 45 holes of golf spread over more than 900 acres, a massive 42 acre practice facility, clubhouse and on-site lodging. Rated by Golf World magazine as the #2 public golf facility in the country, OCN allows the PGA Tour to run a smooth and orderly tournament during what is for the participants an extremely tense week. While it may be a public facility, OCN’s two 18-hole courses will never be confused with your local muny. The fairly open Crooked Cat course is playing to almost 7,300 yards this week and a par of 72; while the tighter and hillier Panther Lake course is set up at 7,150 yards and a par of 71 for the tournament.

As always at Q-School the field is a mix of young and old, of bright-eyed first-timers hoping for their big break and aging veterans hoping to regain their Tour card for one more season. Among the latter are 44-year old Billy Mayfair, who has won five times in his PGA career, including beating a young Tiger Woods in a playoff at the 1998 Nissan Open. But Mayfair hasn’t won in more than a decade, and this year slipped to 142nd on the money list. Another veteran is 38-year old Briny Baird, who’s earned more than $11 million during a 15-year PGA Tour career while never actually winning a tournament. Baird finished 127th on the 2010 money list, just two spots out of the top 125 golfers who are automatically exempt for next season. Another $34,000 in winnings over the course of the 28 tournaments in which Baird played this year and he would be at home this week.

Among the youngsters is 23-year old Kyle Stanley, who in his first trip to the Q-School finals shot 65 on Wednesday to grab the first round lead. A two-time All American at Clemson, Stanley qualified for the 2009 U.S. Open as an amateur where he finished 53rd. He turned pro after the Open and played this year on the Nationwide Tour.

Whatever their age, the Q-School field is always populated with some compelling stories; none more so this year than that of Eric Compton. Diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy at the age of 9, Compton underwent a heart transplant three years later in 1992. He went on to attend the University of Georgia and was a member of the 2001 U.S. Walker Cup team, the amateur equivalent of the Ryder Cup. He then turned pro and has since played mostly on the Nationwide and Canadian Tours. In 2004 he won twice in Canada and led that tour’s money list. Then in 2008 he learned that his replacement heart was failing, and he became one of the very few people in the world to undergo a second transplant operation. Compton made seven starts on the PGA Tour this year, and is walking the courses of Orange County National this week in the hopes of winning the right to make many more in 2011.

Also in the field is Brett Waldman, who’s used to being inside the ropes at PGA tournaments. He’s been there though not as a player but as the caddie for rising star Camilo Villegas. Waldman has been through Q-School before, but never successfully and not for the past eight years. Right at the deadline this year the 38-year old decided to give it one more shot.

Of course, sending in his entry form was the easy part. Players with various degrees of PGA or Nationwide Tour experience are exempt from one or more of the early stages of Q-School. Mayfair and Baird, for example, got free passes right into this week’s finals. But as an entrant without any such status, Waldman had to join nearly 500 other dreamers at a four-day prequalifying tournament. There were six of these events held around the county in mid-September, with the top half of the field at each advancing to the first stage of Q-School. Waldman tied for 8th at his pre-qualifier in San Antonia, and so moved on.

Next came the thirteen first stage tournaments, where the 249 pre-qualifying survivors were joined by three times that number of players exempt into the first stage. More than 1,000 golfers played four rounds in mid to late October, with fewer than 300 advancing. Waldman made it through his first stage tournament with nary a stroke to spare; one of 24 golfers to advance from an event at which the top 23 players and ties earned the right to move on. The week before Thanksgiving the six second stage tournaments were held. Nearly 500 hopefuls played yet another four rounds for just 116 spots in the finals. When Brett Waldman finished his second stage tournament in a tie for 14th, he became one of just nine golfers to make it to the finals the hard way; winning one of the fewer and fewer available spots in all three of the preliminary rounds.

These five and more than 150 others have now completed two rounds in Orlando. Late next Monday afternoon, when the players in the final group complete their 108th hole of the tournament, the top 25 finishers and all those tied for 25th will have earned PGA Tour cards for 2011. The next 50 players will gain exempt status on the Nationwide developmental tour, with everyone else winning conditional Nationwide Tour status; meaning they’ll get to play Nationwide events if there’s an empty spot in the field. But while everyone who has made it to the finals will win some PGA or Nationwide status for 2011, make no mistake; everyone in the field covets one of those twenty-five tickets to the land of courtesy cars, corporate sponsorships, and multi-million dollar purses.

After two rounds, Stanley (-8, tied for 3rd), Mayfair (-5, T-13th), and Waldman (-3, T-24th) are inside that magic 25th spot, while Compton (-1, T-40th), and Baird (+2, T-75th) are on the outside looking in. But with 72 holes to play, no one is out of it and no one is yet safe.

Over the next four days, as the tension gradually builds, all of the players in the field will be put to one of their sports’ toughest tests. Some will lose their composure. Some will lose their focus. Next Monday evening some number will literally be in tears, knowing that but for a single bad putt or loose swing, they would be on their way to the Tour. But for the 25 or so who can best keep it all together and remain in the moment, this first weekend in December will ensure that in 2011 they’ll have the opportunity of a lifetime.

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