Dispatch from PGA Tour Q-school second stage, S. Florida edition
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

Tensions and emotions ran high on Friday in the final round at Plantation Preserve Golf Course & Club in Plantation, Florida (near Fort Lauderdale), one of the six sites around the country holding the second stage of the PGA Tour qualifying tournament, known fondly as “Q-school.”

There’s always an enormous amount of pressure for players trying to advance to finals, but this year there seems to be even more than usual. Why? The reply was simple: “It’s the last year” or “It’s the last chance.” (Or as I like to call it: “Q-school deathwatch.”)

Of course they’re referring to the massive makeover of the Tour’s qualifying process. The 2012 edition of Q-school is the last one to offer a direct pathway to the PGA Tour through the system that dates back to 1965. RIP.

I know I’m not the only person who already feels nostalgia for the Cinderella Story — where anyone can sign up for Q-school and endure the difficult four stages with the possibility of finishing in the top 25 in finals and earn a spot to play in the big leagues.

Under the new system, the qualifying tournament will only award entry to the Tour, the equivalent of Triple A in golf. PGA Tour cards will be given to 50 players via a four-tournament series called the “ Tour Finals,” featuring the top-75 money winners on the Tour money list, along with guys who finish 126-200 on the PGA Tour FedExCup points list at the end of the regular season.

Which is being marketed as a ploy to strengthen the PGA Tour’s developmental circuit. Thing is, players on the Tour are no longer young guys out of college or in their 20s and even 30s trying to chase the dream.

There are also former PGA Tour players who have fallen out of form later in their careers, trying to stay in form until they reach the age minimum for the Champions Tour. And of course, there are always guys — for example, 37-year-old Tommy “Two Gloves Gainey who won the McGladrey Classic last month — that bounce back-and-forth between the PGA Tour and Tour.

Blah, blah, blah.

Ominous first tee at Plantation Preserve


As we know, spending a year on the Tour has never hurt a player, but if you’re ranked No. 49 in the world, like Alex Noren, who has three wins on the European Tour, it seems like it’d be a bit of a drag. Good news is Noren finished T18 to get past the second stage site in Humble, Texas.

Same goes for world No. 91 Ross Fisher, who was a member of the victorious European Ryder Cup squad in 2010. The Englishman has played primarily on the European Tour where he has won four times. Given the circumstances with the change in Q-school, Fisher decided to make the leap and try to earn his PGA Tour membership this year.

I admit it was a bit weird to see him grinding it out at Plantation Preserve, where he ultimately advanced to finals by finishing at 11-under in a tie for 13th. He cut it a little close with bogeys on Nos. 15 and 16, but he birdied the par-5 18th to give himself some breathing room.

Basically, the new system will make it more difficult for international players to earn their Tour cards.

20-year-old Meen Whee Kim of South Korea signed up for PGA Tour Q-school for the first time. Why?

“Last chance,” he told me after closing with a strong four-under on the final nine to post 67, 17-under total, and finish second to Tour veteran Rob Oppenheim, who won medalist honors by four strokes at Plantation Preserve.

Kim, who goes by “Whee,” turned pro two years ago and played mostly on the One Asia Tour. In fact, his competitive debut in the U.S. was the first stage of Q-school. Last year he said he tried to qualify for the Japan Tour.

“I missed the cut,” he said, shaking his head while laughing simultaneously. “I don’t like. Not my type (of golf). (Fairways were) too tight. You have to hit it so straight all the time.”

He gestured with his hands that he hit some errant drives.

Well, then your game should be perfect for America.

“Absolutely,” he replied.

He said he felt pressure on Friday “because it’s Q-school.” Playing in the final group with Oppenheim and Kris Blanks, he handled his nerves like a veteran. Kim is still learning a few things, like not putting the flag on the ground. His caddie said they were getting to that part and he had to tell him twice that in the U.S. you drop the pin.

If you watch on TV or in person, you’ll notice on the PGA Tour, one of the caddies is always holding the flag (they pass it off when their player is done putting, so the caddie of the player last to putt out will replace it…). It’s a minor detail, but kind of funny in a very inside golf way. Basically, a tiny rookie faux pas that gives veterans a chuckle.

There was a lot to take in on Friday, but I mostly watched the last two groups. I walked ahead several times to try and get score updates since there aren’t any leaderboards and I wanted an idea of how the field was doing. Was anyone blowing it in the final round? Was anyone coming up in the clutch?

The two players who stood out to me were young guns: Whee Kim and recent Georgia Tech grad James White (who both could stand to work on their pace of play, particularly the latter — I mean, this was Ben Crane slow…).

Naturally, things got more intense as the day progressed. The last few hours were pretty nerve wracking.

I watched Nate Smith, who started the day on the outside looking in, drain a huge par-putt from 16 feet on No. 16. There was no one watching, but Nate reacted with a massive Tiger-like fist-pump. (Oh, it’s pretty amusing to watch these guys react because there are only a few people in the gallery at most, and in this case, I was the lone witness outside of his playing partners and caddies.) Turned out it gave Nate some momentum and he went on to birdie No. 17 and post a -4, 67, -11 total to safely advance to finals.

“Could you feel the agony out there?? It’s like, oh, no big deal, you’re just playing for your life!” said Nate afterward.

Um, yes, I could. I know it’s just golf (and so does he), but I got so caught up into the intensity that I forgot to eat and didn’t drink enough fluids, so I was the one who almost ended up sick and feeling like puking on Friday afternoon.

When I walked in the clubhouse, this was the uneasy, tense scene. Looks like a happy bunch, huh? They’re the players who stuck around to wait for scores to be posted. There are only two or three times a year where you really see guys crowded around a leaderboard — U.S. Open and British Open qualifiers and Q-school.

It’s just as intriguing as it is distressing.

I’ve covered Q-school finals the last two years, and for longtime readers, you know that it’s one of my favorite events of the year. Yes, I’m a masochist and weirdo, but I’ve always loved the purity of Q-school — no corporate logos, no sponsor tents, no ropes, no electronic leaderboards; just golf — and the feel-good Cinderella stories. As you also probably know, I’m a sucker for the underdog, so I enjoy the tales of journeymen who have spent years grinding on the mini tours or the young rising stars trying to break out.

Anyway, in the past, quite a few players have said the pressure at second stage was more intense than it was at finals for them. Which was and is understandable. You see, if you reach Q-school finals, you’re guaranteed status of some kind: full PGA Tour exemption, full Tour exemption or conditional exemption. But if you don’t get past second, then it’s back to the mini tours and Monday qualifiers for many players. With the revamping of the current system, some guys will have to wait two years, instead of one, for another chance to earn or re-earn a spot in the big leagues.

Man, one year seemed like long enough…

I imagine the sting of missing by a shot is going to last longer than usual. Hank Kuehne wasn’t the biggest fan of the par-5 18th at Plantation Preserve. On Friday he closed with a double-bogey to shoot one-under 70, nine-under total. A mere bogey would have granted him a trip to finals.

Jamie Lovemark, the 2010 Tour money-list winner and former-can’t-miss guy, also posted nine-under to miss by one. He should get some starts on the Tour next season since he finished 85th on the money list.

Meanwhile, Michael Sims, who posted a 59 at an eGolf Professional Tour event earlier in the year, shot a final-round 70 for a 12-under total to advance to the final stage at PGA West.

Like I said, I got too caught up with the intensity of second stage (man, I’m such a dork) that I forgot to hydrate properly, so I’m still a bit delirious. Hope most of this made sense (and apologies for rambling).

Anyway, three of the six sites for second stage wrapped up today, while the other three will finish on Saturday. Hope those with one round left are sleeping soundly and best of luck to all.

You can check results here.