Tales from Q School: Inside Golf's Fifth Major

Tales from Q School: Inside Golf's Fifth Major

by John Feinstein


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316014328
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 06/05/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 465,964
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

John Feinstein is the bestselling author of Last Dance, Next Man Up, Let Me Tell You a Story (with Red Auerbach), Caddy for Life, Open, The Punch, The Last Amateurs, The Majors, A Good Walk Spoiled, A Civil War, A Season on the Brink, Play Ball, Hard Courts, and two novels. He writes for Inside Sports, Golf, Tennis Magazine and Basketball America and is a regular commentator on NPR and CBS.

Read an Excerpt

Tales from Q School

By John Feinstein

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2007 John Feinstein
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-316-01430-4

Chapter One

Dreams (and Nightmares) Come True

The 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 2 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 - bigtime. 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 it. I came to the last hole needing a birdie to get to 11. I was between nine and pitching wedge for my second shot and finally hit the wedge. It came up about 20 feet short. I knew exactly what was at stake. The putt just didn't break as much as I thought. It stayed a few inches outside the hole. That was how much I missed getting my job back by - three, four inches. I'm not sure I can remember feeling quite as crushed as I did at that moment."

Months later, Forsman's voice was soft and sad as he remembered that day. "In March I got to play at Bay Hill [a PGA Tour event in Orlando]. One day, I'm not sure why, I drove out to Orange County and just kind of walked around. I can't even tell you why I did it. Maybe I was looking for some kind of closure with what had happened in December. I just remember feeling a kind of melancholy walking around out there again, remembering shots - good and bad - from that week. I had a chance once to win the Masters on Sunday, and hit it in the water at 12 and finished seventh. That hurt. But this was different. I'm forty-seven years old. I can hear that clock ticking. I know time is going to run out on me - soon. I just want the chance to play against the best players on a week-to-week basis again before that clock runs out."

Everyone hears the clock - the old, the middle-aged, the young. When you miss at Q School, people pat you on the back, say "Good playing; you'll get 'em next year," and you don't want to hear it. Next year is never guaranteed in golf, except for an elite handful who have won major titles and climbed so far up the ladder they seemingly can't fall down. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Fred Couples, and Jim Furyk are at that level. There may be a few others: Retief Goosen, Davis Love III, José María Olazábal, and David Toms are probably safe for the rest of their careers.

That's a short list. In 2004 and 2005, Larry Mize - whose 140-foot chip-in to beat Greg Norman in a play-off at the 1987 Masters is one of the most replayed and remembered shots in golf history - found himself back at Q School trying to regain fully exempt status on the tour. In 2006 two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen kept his exempt status only by invoking a one-time exception granted to those in the top 50 on the all-time tour money list. By the end of 2006 he, like Mize, was back at Q School. Paul Azinger, the 1993 PGA champion and a Ryder Cup hero on numerous occasions, entered Q School in 2005, then decided parttime status on the tour was enough for him when combined with his work for ABC. Azinger would have preferred totally exempt status but decided in the end it wasn't worth the torture of Q School.

"You do wonder if you aren't pushing the envelope a little bit when you are paired with guys who call you 'Mr. Mize,'" Larry Mize said, laughing, as he hit balls on the range one afternoon. "One day after we got through playing, one of the kids in my group said to me, 'Mr. Mize, I just have to ask you about the shot at Augusta.' Actually, I kind of enjoy that. I never mind replaying that for people, because it was such a great moment for me. But then I realized later that the kid who asked me about it, who is now a peer I'm trying to compete with, was four years old when that shot happened. Now that's a little bit freaky."

Mize is forty-eight. Like Forsman and Waite (who is forty-two), he has some access to the PGA Tour as a "past champion" - someone who has won at least once on the tour during his career. It wasn't that long ago that a player in that category might get into twenty tournaments a year, but changes in the rules, designed to give younger players more opportunity to play, have made it tougher. For Mize, as a major champion, there might be fifteen chances a year to play. Forsman and Waite aren't likely to get that many opportunities. Waite, who first lost his full-time playing privileges in 2002 after ten years on the tour - including a victory in 1993 and a dramatic one-shot loss to Tiger Woods in Canada in 2001 - spent a couple of years in the netherworld of "wanderers." He tried to get into PGA Tour events wherever and whenever he could, and when he couldn't, he played on the Nationwide Tour.

"At some point, you have to accept the fact that, like it or not, your golf game at this moment is only worthy of the Nationwide," he said. "That's tough to take when you've been on the PGA Tour for a while, but once you accept it, you have a better chance to find your game on the Nationwide." Waite had done that in 2005, playing in twenty Nationwide tournaments and only six PGA Tour events. Even so, it hadn't been easy for him. He had made only nine cuts and finished 96th on the money list. "It's a different world on that tour in so many ways," he said. "You're playing against young guys, who can hit it 50 yards past you and are focused on one thing: making the top 20 on the money list for the year so they can get onto the PGA Tour the next year without going to Q School. You see the kids on the Nationwide, and you realize that they're you fifteen or twenty years ago - fearless, excited to be there, and playing without any doubts at all." He smiled. "I would love to feel that way again, but I know I'm not going to."

Waite wasn't talking specifically about Peter Tomasulo when he described the young guns on the Nationwide Tour, but he might have been. Tomasulo was twenty-four and had been a professional for a little more than a year. He had gone from a barely recruited, barely scholarshipped (books only) freshman at the University of California to an all-American as a senior. He had started 2005 without status on any golf tour and had ended it in 35th place on the Nationwide Tour money list after winning the Alberta Classic, which gave him full status on the Nationwide. Tomasulo had come to Q School without any fears or any doubts. He knew that it was going to be just another step on his journey to the PGA Tour.

"My year had just been on an up escalator from the start," he said. "I'd gone from trying to make it onto the Canadian Tour to playing well on that tour to making it to the Nationwide Tour to finishing fourth in the Nationwide Tour Championship to get the 35th spot on the money list." That finish was crucial to Tomasulo because it meant he didn't have to go to the second stage of Q School. Each year, there are three stages of Q School. A small cadre of players - those who finish between 126th and 150th on the PGA Tour money list and those who finish between 21st and 35th on the Nationwide Tour money list - are exempt from the first two stages. A somewhat larger group - past PGA Tour winners, anyone on the PGA Tour during that year, and those who finish between 36th and 70th on the Nationwide list - are exempt from first stage. Everyone else goes to one of fourteen first-stage sites around the country. In 2005 there were 1,205 Q School entries. Those who started at first stage had to ante up $4,500 to play. Once upon a time, the fee was $200, but inflation and the tour's desire to scare off those who might want to enter just to say they played in Q School have sent the price soaring in recent years. If the fee is a deterrent, no one has noticed a drop-off in entries because of it.

Tomasulo was exempt until the third and final stage. Like Waite, he appeared to be in perfect position going into the final day. He was at 11 under par, right on the number, when he began his round. He was at 12 under par with nine holes to play on that last afternoon, and he didn't have a shred of doubt about what was going to happen at the end of the day. But he got an awful break on the 10th hole, when his second shot to the par-five, a perfect layup, somehow landed squarely on top of a loose divot and stayed right there. "All the years I've played golf, that's never happened to me," he said later. "I had no idea how to play the shot. I ended up chunking it into the rough in front of the green, and the next thing I know, I've made a bogey instead of the birdie I was sure I was going to make. That was the first time I got a little nervous. In fact, it was the first time that the thought 'I wonder what the number will be?' crossed my mind. Until then, I wasn't even thinking about the number; I was just trying to make as many birdies as I could so I'd finish as high up on the final list as possible. Once that thought came into my head, I couldn't get it out no matter how hard I tried not to think about it."


Excerpted from Tales from Q School by John Feinstein Copyright © 2007 by John Feinstein . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction     3
Dreams (and Nightmares) Come True     13
Forty Years Ago...     25
In the Beginning     42
Nine Hundred and Seventy-three Dreamers     59
Nineteen and Ties     75
On to November     94
Lake Jovita Blues     114
Moving Day     127
The Unkindest Cuts of All     145
What Is, Is     160
Endings     181
Six Days     195
"This Isn't a Sprint"     218
Cold and Wind and... Cold     232
Beginning of the End     256
Go Low or Bust     269
Final Countdown     282
Hawaii, Here We Come     291
Epilogue: December 2006     319
Afterword: 2007     329
Acknowledgments     337
Index     343

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Tales from Q School: Inside Golf's Fifth Major 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Q School is golfs little known training ground. This book paints the plain picture of the pressures, joys, and heartbreaks experienced every year by golfers trying to get on the tour! The book is very easy to read, but plan to do it in large chunks, because there are so many players mentioned, it is easy to lose track of them all. Part of the attaction of the book was watching the tournaments on the weekend, and seeing names from the book on the leader boards!
santhony on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I've read many of Feinstein's previous works and enjoyed some of them immensely. A Season on the Brink and A Good Walk Spoiled were outstanding. His last two books, however, have been disappointing. Perhaps his style is such that over time it begins to wear and grate on you. I could swear that he wrote a similar book on Q school some years ago. Much of the story seems very familiar, though with different names. The old 40 something year old pro trying for one last shot. The former major winner relegated to Q school. The hot young junior golfer suddenly struggling to make the show. I've heard it before and to make matters worse, Feinstein seems to repeat himself throughout the book. He tells a story in the foreward and then repeats it in the body of the book, perhaps to beef up a work that can easily be read in one sitting. If you watch the television special on Q school each year, you get the same story with video. Hold out for the TV special.
MediaRaven More than 1 year ago
Q School has changed a bit since this book was written, but it's still a great resource to understand the pressures of becoming a professional golfer. Feinstein captures the joys and horrors experienced along the way to the PGA Golf Tour. He has dozens of personal stories, including quite a few golfers who are now well known or were for a period of time. Some stories are very inspirational, and this is a great reminder that athletes have real-life issues to deal with like everyone else. Highly recommended for any serious golf fan.
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Nazgul21 More than 1 year ago
I have often said to friends that when it comes to Tiger, we are watching our Babe Ruth. After reading this book, I'm even more convinced. The book was not about Tiger, but about the other guys that make up the tour who are capable of winning each week. Feinstein let's us get to know the guys we think we know as well as the guys we know nothing about. We get to know why golf is such an honorable sport and how sportsmanship is placed above winning. We also see what it's like to get to the point of saying goodbye to a dream only to be put to sleep and mesmerized once more. Which brings me back to Tiger; he's never had to go to Q-School and never will. He's so much more mentally tough that he'll never have to wonder whether he's good enough to make the tour or stay on the tour. As much as it makes you respect Tiger, it also makes you respect the other guys even more. I recommend this book to anyone that plays golf, has a passing interest in golf, or just likes to read about sports.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
As usual, I enjoyed the subject matter of the book because I'm an avid golfer. And, as usual, Feinstein repeats and repearts and repeatts 'stories' within the book. How many times, in how many places, does the reader need to be told the same thing?! And, often, he starts talking about someone, then brings in another golfer to the 'story,' then, much later on, says 'he' did this or that - and the question then is 'who is the 'he' he's now talking about?' As I said, I enjoyed the subject matter, but he needs to learn how to write.
Guest More than 1 year ago
John has that wonderful knack of writing good books about the most important and mesmerizing events ... and people. And in his newest, he picked what's really the most pressurized golf event in the world: Q School. It is ... and always has been. You know you've got a good book in your hands ... especially when it's nonfiction ... especially when it's about a whole bunch of fellows in khaki pants for God's sakes ... and when you're reading along and your heart starts thumping ... and you pull for everybody. ¿¿Todd Sentell is the author of Toonamint of Champions: How LaJuaninta Mumps Got to Join Augusta National Golf Club Real Easy
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of Feinstein's best. Takes you inside the rigors of trying to qualify for the PGA tour. You can feel the pressure, agony and triumph right along with the golfers.