Every January, the PGA Tour kicks off its season in Hawaii and our stars come back to us. It’s great to see them all again, a year older but not looking it. And the Tour protocols work the pairings in a way that clusters them together for us. Finally, back into the swing of things!
But it’s also the time of year that the Tour breathes little-noticed, new life into itself: it’s the arrival of the newly minted Tour players, fresh from Q-School. They’re little noticed because they’re not the ones on television. The Tour is followed closely enough by even casual golf fans that everyone has pretty much heard of Q-School. But what might not be as well understood is just how monumental its scale and production is and what it takes to survive it.
First of all, it costs $5,000 to even try. Last year, a total of 1,300 tried…for just 25 Tour cards.
If you’ve not established your playing bona fides with the Tour, you are obligated to go to a Pre-Qualification tournament. They began in mid-September with approximately 78 players playing for approximately 40 spots at each location. These were the six locations this year:
- Lake Jovita CC – Dade City, FL (Tampa)
- Yankee Hill CC – Linclon, NE
- TPC San Antonio – San Antonio, TX
- Golf Club of Dallas – Dallas, TX
- Kinderlou Forest GC – Valdosta, GA (Tallahassee/ Jacksonville)
- PGA West – La Quinta, CA (Palm Springs)
The First Qualifying Stage tournaments have the same 78-player field sizes, but they only take about 25 players on to the Second Stage. They begin in mid-October at one of this year’s thirteen locations:
- Club at Irish Creek – Kannapolis, NC (Charlotte)
- Grasslands G&CC – Lakeland, FL (Tampa/Orlando)
- Dayton Valley GC – Dayton, NV (Carson City/Reno)
- Carlton Oaks CC – Santee, CA (San Diego)
- Stonebridge Ranch – McKinney, TX (Dallas)
- Pinewild CC – Pinehurst, NC
- Lantana CC – Lantana, TX (Dallas)
- Kingwood CC – Kingwood, TX (Houston)
- Turtle Bay Resort – Kahaku, Oahu, HI (Honolulu)
- Callaway Gardens – Pine Mountain, GA (Atlanta)
- PGA Golf Club – Port St. Lucie, FL (Fort Pierce/West Palm Beach)
- Oak Valley GC – Beaumont, CA (San Bernardino/Palm Springs)
- Auburn University Club – Auburn, AL
The Second Qualifying Stage tournaments have the same 78-player field sizes, but they won’t know how many will get through to the Final Stage from each location until just before they begin play. Their slots have to be adjusted to accommodate those players automatically exempt into the Final Stage (e.g. those players who finished between 125 and 150 on the current year’s money list, among others). It begins in mid-November at one of this year’s six locations:
- Redstone GC – Humble, TX (Houston)
- Southern Hills Plantation – Brooksville, FL (Tampa)
- Hombre GC – Panama City Beach, FL (Pensacola/Tallahassee)
- Bear Creek GC – Murrieta, CA (35 miles inland from Laguna Beach)
- TPC Craig Ranch – McKinney, TX (Dallas)
- Bayonet Course – Seaside, CA (Monterey)
And finally, what most people know as Q-School, the aptly named, Final Qualifying Stage tournament. Only a total of 156 players, those who are exempt and those who survive the early-stages gauntlet, play in the first week in December. They play six rounds on two contiguous courses (three on each). They are required to walk all six rounds and any practice rounds, presumably two. Oh, and all of the intervening practice before and after each round. That’s eight days in a row of physically demanding, high-pressure golf. This year it will be played at:
- Orange County National Golf Center & Lodge – Winter Garden, FL (Orlando)
Only the low 25 players and ties walk away with their PGA Tour cards, but even then they’re low enough on the totem pole that not all of them get to play each week. The higher you finish, the more tournaments you get into. (I remember a story in a book from Q-School survivor, Carl Paulson. He checked on the tournament in Honolulu ten days before to ensure that he was entered and then flew all the way from South Carolina to Hawaii only to find out that, while he was in the tournament when he called, Tour players with higher standing had bumped him by the Friday before the tournament, the entry deadline. Who knew?) And when you do get in, you have to make cuts and money because there are periodic reshuffles of the rankings to reward those who play well. Nobody hides on the PGA Tour.
Sorry to be so pedantic about all of this, but I am just fascinated by the scope of what it takes to put this all together all across the country. Many stories deal with the three-stage process (few include the Pre-Qualification), but few address the sheer magnitude of it: all of these players at all of these golf courses that need to be prepared for tournament conditions (with everything that involves) and presided over by a team of PGA Tour Rules Officials at each course.
Beyond all of these logistical issues, what makes Q-School so fascinating is its humanity and the fact that it is life altering. You have the opportunity to realize a long-held dream, but you risk finding out that you don’t have what it takes. It can lead to euphoric joy or crushing disappointment. Grown men cry for both reasons.
On the other hand, there are all of the guys sitting at home who didn’t have $5,000 and wished they had the chance.