Just a few miles down the road from the site of this week’s PGA Tour Q-School, Orange County National, there’s one of the many massive welcome signs to the Walt Disney World Resort emblazoned with the slogan “Where Dreams Come True.” For the 166 (minus the dozen or so PGA Tour veterans) relative unknowns, faceless mini tour players or just-turned pros within six rounds of achieving a lifetime’s goal, it’s a preface to the week less sappy and overwrought than it is deadly serious.
We hear similar storylines every year, but what’s the atmosphere like the day before it starts? Surprisingly, rather relaxed in a zoo-like way. Call it the calm before the storm. And how about the mentality of the players? Cool and collected, for now.
One week can completely change the lives of the guys that finish in the top 25 (or more with ties) at the Tour’s annual Q-school event. It can also result in utter heartbreak and ruin a(nother) year for others, including former major champions. The do-or-die essence of Q-school is what makes the merciless-yet-riveting event so fascinating (at least for golf geeks like myself).
“It’s an iconic brand when you think about it,” said Joe Ogilvie, a veteran and winner on the PGA Tour who is trying to get his job back this week.
For all the talk about the nerves and pressure, it’s practically undetectable on the Tuesday before the first round. By that point, there’s only so much they can do to prepare. And if they’re not ready, that’s probably not going to change by Wednesday morning.
It doesn’t have the corporate, uptight atmosphere of a regular PGA Tour event. Instead, it’s just another week of golf — at least that’s the mentality that some are trying to take into the grueling 108-hole week.
“It’ll change, it most certainly will,” said Ogilvie. “They won’t know what hit ’em.”
“By now you’ve got it figured out or you don’t,” said Andres Gonzales, a second-time Q-school finalist who has played mostly on the Canadian Tour the last few years (and has the best facial hair in the field). “Tomorrow is just going to be the same — it’s not like you’re out here grinding and working on your swing. You won’t see much tenseness until Sunday or Monday.”
“I’m reserving my energy. I’m going to putt and then sit after lunch,” he said with a goofy grin. Meanwhile, he’s exchanging text messages with Peter Tomasulo, who was sitting across the room merely 15 yards away.
For second-or-third timers, familiarity and friends also relieve some of the pressure.
“As far as comfort level, I definitely find it to be a lot easier this year because I know more people, I can BS, mess around and have some fun,” said Nate Smith, who finished 27th on the NWT money list for fully-exempt status. “I’ve been through (Q-school), so I know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if I’m going to play well or if I’m going to make it, but I know what feelings I’m going to have. At some point, there will be a little nervousness and hopefully that’ll be Monday early because I have a big cushion.”
Smith, a Duke grad who grew up in the Santa Cruz area, exudes a chill California vibe (but has a hyper side, according to his friends).
“I have a different attitude than a lot of people so I haven’t thought much a lot about it, to be honest. I know my goal is to obviously finish in the top 25, but that’s about as much thought I’ve given it. A lot of people probably know and think they have to do a certain thing and they’ll really be thinking about the possible scenarios. I guess I’m lucky I can just go with it. I’m sure I’ll think about it at some point, but as of right now, it’s show up tomorrow and play.”
Others have a number in mind — but only because in regard to their status (for more playing options).
Take Michael Putnam, who notched his first professional victory on the NWT in September and finished 23rd on the money list to secure his card for the second time (played on the PGA Tour in 2007).
“I’m playing Q-school because I want to improve my number — it’s 46 right now. Last year that was second alternate at the Sony Open,” said Michael. “If I finish in the top-five this week, I’ll also get in the Bob Hope, Phoenix Open (Waste Management Open) and LA Open (Northern Trust Open).”
Putnam quipped, “And to hang out with the best-looking man at Q-school, Andres Gonzales.”
“Would you say you’re on a free roll?” Andres chimed in.
“Yeah, I’m on a free roll, but I’m here to play well,” added Putnam, who lives in Tacoma, WA. “I want to add those four tournaments. That’s the only reason why I’m here. And to get out of the crappy weather.”
The PGA Tour veterans in the field, who finished between 125 to 150 on the money list for conditional status, have a more matter-of-the-fact attitude.
“It is what it is, an opportunity to make up for a poor year of playing,” said Ogilvie. “The golf course is a bit of a grind, but means 6 rounds under par and you are in.”
“There’s only upside this week, no real downside. 25 guys will go from nowhere to the PGA Tour. Of course, about eight of those guys will be PGA Tour vets, so you have 20 odd guys who get to live a dream because of a 1, 2, 4 week test, depending how many stages. Unheard of in sport.”
But then there are the veterans that would rather be lounging on a couch and watching TV. Like Scott Piercy, who finished 136th on the PGA Tour money list this year and candidly voiced his indifference.
Asked about his mentality, Piercy replied half-jokingly, “To finish the tournament. It’s six days, it’s such a marathon. By Friday, you’re like this is such BS.
“It’s definitely a different mentality than when I came here with no status than now when I don’t care. I don’t know if it gets easier. Generally speaking, the cream rises to the top and hopefully you call me the cream this week. I’m the one who’s been on Tour. It’s kind of like, these (other) guys have to catch up to me sort of thing. I had a terrible year and I’m still on Tour.
“When you first turn pro, you’re just happy to be here. I don’t really care. If I play good, then great. If I don’t, then I don’t care. I’m kind of over golf (right now). It’s been a rough year.
“Everybody is out here grinding and I’m like, f@&#, I just want to go home.”
As for the chill atmosphere, expect that to change with each round. In fact, it’s admittedly a front for some.
“It’s weird, it’s a very stressful environment,” said Smith. “Once the tournament starts it’ll be more stressful. Maybe everyone is in denial. I think it’s probably just everybody has a different sort of pressure. You’ll definitely see people who put a lot of pressure on themselves and they don’t have anything to fall back on — they may be the people to play the best or the worst.”
Added Piercy’s caddie Michael Collins, “Everyone is happy and loose now, but you go to that driving range on Monday and it’s quieter than church.”
“Guys try to play it off like they’re relaxed, but you’ll see them throwing clubs by Sunday or Monday,” said Putnam. “I am a pretty chill guy. I don’t get mad very often, but I remember at the first time I played Q-school finals in ’05, I was throwing clubs by the end of the week. I’ve never been more mad on the golf course than that week at Q-school.”
But for the 25 or so guys that have their A-games and keep their cool, most of them will probably be the happiest they’ve ever been on the links when Monday creeps around.
“It’s one of my dreams and ultimate goal to be on the PGA Tour,” said Smith. “I have the opportunity to do that all in one week — but it can be a distraction. I’m just looking at it like any other week and hopefully by the end, I’ll have reached that goal.”