Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 8, 2011

No Sympathy For Past Champions At Q-School

Tiger Woods won a golf tournament last weekend, for the first time in more than two years. Based on some of the coverage, one would be excused for assuming incorrectly that it was the U.S. Open or the Masters; rather than a silly-season exhibition with a field of just 18 golfers. Still, coming on top of a couple of weeks of reasonably solid play in Australia, Tiger’s win at his own invitation-only Chevron World Challenge offered golf fans hope that the premiere player of our time might finally be coming back into form.

Meanwhile, in La Quinta, California, just a three-hour drive east of Sherwood Country Club where Woods was returning to the winner’s circle, four golfers who share a singular achievement with Tiger were playing in a far more meaningful event. In a rare occurrence, the field for the six-round final of the PGA Tour’s qualifying tournament for membership on next year’s tour included four past winners of major tournaments. Each had known the glory and felt the adulation of fans that Tiger has on fourteen separate occasions. Each, by virtue of their presence at the Tour’s Q-School event, had seen his game slip away to the point where he was now in a desperate struggle to be able to continue to call himself a PGA Tour professional.

Of the four, the presence of 42-year old Shaun Micheel was the least surprising. The unheralded Micheel’s victory at the 2003 PGA Championship stunned the golf world. Nearly a decade later it seems no less remarkable, in large part because it remains his only win on the PGA Tour.

Still, when he has been healthy in the years since his two-shot victory at Oak Hill Country Club Micheel has been at least an occasional contender. He made it to the weekend at all four majors in 2004 for the only time in his career, and finished in the top 100 on the Tour’s money list for the second consecutive season. But his game was derailed by a medical condition in 2005. After treatment for hypogonadism he returned to form in 2006, and had three top-10 finishes while earning nearly $1 million in 2007. But the following year his season was cut short by surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. After again recording three top-10’s last year, he made the cut in less than half of his 2011 starts, finishing 188th on the money list.

He started and ended well at La Quinta, opening with a 5-under 67 and closing with a 3-under 69. But he gave all eight strokes back during the four middle rounds, with a 4-over par 76 on Sunday effectively erasing any hope he had of retaining his Tour card for 2012.

One year before Micheel won his major, Rich Beem was the 2002 PGA champion in an outcome that was almost as big a surprise as Micheel’s victory. Beem at least had won before on Tour; once in his rookie season of 1999 and again at The International, just two weeks before the 2002 PGA Championship. But like Micheel, Beem hasn’t won since his major triumph; and has seen his career stunted by medical issues. Early in the 2010 season Beem underwent back surgery to repair a bulging disk. He expected to face a six-week layoff, but a difficult rehab led to him missing the rest of the year.

Playing on a major medical exemption this year, Beem could have kept his card by making just over $658,000 in his first 17 events. That amount, coupled with his 2010 earnings prior to the surgery, would have matched 125th place on the 2010 money list. But the 41-year old didn’t come close, earning a little over $135,000 for the entire season. He didn’t come close at the Q-School finals either. With just one round below par Beem was never a factor, finishing in a tie for 120th at 6-over par.

At age 47 Lee Janzen was the oldest of the four and the only one with two major championships. In 1993 at Baltusrol in New Jersey and again five years later at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, Janzen edged Payne Stewart to claim the U.S. Open title. The two Open triumphs were among eight PGA Tour wins in a career that now stretches over more than two decades. But as with Micheel and Beem, his most recent win in a major is also his most recent win on Tour. In 2011 he had just one finish in the top 25 and wound up 185th on the money list.

With his fiftieth birthday and the Champions Tour on the horizon, Janzen was no doubt hoping to hold on to exempt status on the regular tour just a little bit longer. At 6-under par for the tournament he came closer than any of the other former major winners, but in the end the magic number to earn a Tour card was 8-under par. After 426 strokes over six rounds of golf, Janzen could doubtless look back on a loose swing or two, or a couple of misread or mishit putts that would have made all the difference.

Then there was David Duval. Less than a month past his 40th birthday, Duval was the youngest of the four and also the most successful. His thirteen PGA Tour wins came in a span of less than four years, when Duval seized center stage of the golfing world at the dawn of what would become the Tiger Woods era. He climbed to the top of the Official World Golf Rankings in April, 1999 after winning the BellSouth Classic for his 4th victory of the still-young season. A week before the BellSouth he won the Players’ Championship, the so-called fifth major. Earlier that year he closed out victory at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic with a phenomenal 59 in his final round. Two years later Duval shot 65-67 on the weekend at Royal Lytham to bound up the leader board and win the 2001 Open Championship by three strokes.

Only Woods was more successful during this period, and since neither was yet 30 it seemed like they might be rivals for years to come. But then for Duval as suddenly as the victories had come, they stopped. It’s now a decade later, and as with Micheel, Beem, and Janzen, Duval’s last win is still that now-distant major. Perhaps it was nagging injuries, or the ending of a long-term relationship, or simply an aversion to the white-hot spotlight that is always focused on center stage; but for whatever reason by the end of the 2003 season the golfer who had been seen as Tiger’s principal competitor was 203rd on the money list.

In recent years Duval has shown fans a fleeting glimpse, now and then, of the game that was once so brilliant. He was in the mix for much of the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot; and finished 2nd two years ago when the national championship returned to New York at Bethpage. Along the way, he has become something of a sympathetic figure. But his 152nd place finish on the 2011 money list pointed him to La Quinta, where he was 6-under for the tournament with nine holes to play. Needing to shave a couple more strokes off par to secure his 2012 card, Duval instead played the next five holes in 6-over.

On the California coast last weekend, the dominant golfer of our age served notice that he’s not dead yet. But just a morning’s drive to the east, in the California desert, four men who have also won majors reminded us that every athlete’s career is an arc; like the sun marching across the sky on a cloudless day. And like that sun, inevitably, inexorably, the arc of every athlete’s career moves toward twilight.

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