2005: PGA Tour - Johnny be good
Winter Garden, Fla.
Midway through his maiden PGA Tour Qualifying School Tournament, John B. Holmes summed up the only thing he knew for certain about the Fall Classic.
“You just hear the horror stories,” Holmes said. “You don’t hear about the good stories, the people who make it through their first time.”
By its very nature, Q-School is about train wrecks, not triumphs. Joe Daley’s lip-out on the 17th hole during Round 4 of the 2002 final stage is Q-School lore. The guy who won that ’02 event (Jeff Brehaut) is a trivia question most people can’t answer.
As a society, we rubberneck auto accidents, go to hockey games for the fights and anxiously watch Q-School waiting on fate’s unlucky FootJoy to drop.
That is, until last week. The 2005 edition of Tour card torture was the feel-good Q-School, a warm and fuzzy version of the annual scaly-skinned grind – complete with enough victories to help soften the blows from all those inevitable collapses.
Among the conquests Dec. 5 at Orange County National just outside Orlando was Holmes’ historic rout. Not only did the smiling, hard-swinging country boy from Campbellsville, Ky., become the first player in 22 years to go directly from one school (college) to Q-School medalist in the same year, he did it at 135 mph.
Holmes, whose prodigious tee shots are matched only by his propensity for slow play, became only the fifth player since 2000 to post a six-pack of sub-70 rounds (69-69-68-67-66-69), and he topped the field by three strokes.
“He has no idea what he just did,” said Michael Allen, a veteran of 12 Q-School finals, marveling at Holmes’ talent and relaxed performance on one of the game’s most unnerving stages.
But at an event that featured no shortage of victories – large and small – even Holmes’ tale paled in comparison to the journey John Engler completed at OCN.
For Engler, 27, just earning a tee time at the final stage was reason to crack open the Dom Perignon. Just two years ago, walking across the room to get a glass of water had been cause for an impromptu celebration.
“There were times when I couldn’t play two, three weeks in a row,” Engler said. “Things didn’t look good for me as a golfer, so I’m kind of just having fun.”
Engler was involved in a horrific automobile accident in March 2003 that killed two people in another car and left Engler’s right ankle fractured. Six surgeries in nine months and ongoing bouts with a staph infection followed.
Even though, as a left-hander, Engler exposed his shattered right ankle to great stress, his smooth, simple swing eventually returned. His ability to play professional golf, however, remained in question.
“There were times it didn’t look like I was going to be able to walk. Seventy-two (holes) this week, 72 the next week, 72 the next week...it just didn’t look very good,” Engler said.
Even after he began his comeback last year on the NGA/Hooters Tour, doctors warned the former Clemson standout he may never be able to play pro golf again.
“Last year I came to Q-School after they (doctors) told me not to – I didn’t listen,” said Engler, who failed to advance out of the first stage. “That was one of the lowest points.”
Engler shelved his pro plans and went to work for his family’s construction business. But he never gave up on his dream, and when his doctors told him in August his ankle had regained enough flexibility and strength to give golf another try, he didn’t hesitate.
The comeback began with a third-place finish at first stage in Florence, S.C., and a tie for seventh at second stage in Kingwood, Texas. The dream that seemed lost to fate had returned.
“Nobody was talking about golf for a long time,” said Engler’s father, Doug. “We were talking about getting him back to where he could enter and function in society again. Then the doctors gave him the green light, and he decided it was something he really wanted to do.”
Engler is part medical miracle, part mind-over-matter magician. Doctors told him he’d probably always walk with a limp, yet he refuses to do so. When asked how he reacted when doctors thought he’d never be able to run again, he laughs and takes off on a sprint through the OCN parking lot.
So when Engler arrived in Central Florida, 108 holes, two grueling golf courses and unrelenting pressure just seemed like more doors he needed to kick in with his rebuilt ankle.
His first-round 73 on the Panther Lake course was an ominous start, but it turned out to be his worst card of the week. He recovered the next day with a 68 and an ace at the par-3 sixth on the more benign Crooked Cat layout.
Fate seemed to step in again in Round 3 when he was paired with former Masters champion Larry Mize, a family friend.
“He is an extremely talented young man who can really play, regardless of everything he’s been through,” said Mize, who was one of the first people to call Engler in the hospital after his accident.
In his sixth round Monday, Engler delivered his most impressive performance, notching six birdies between bookend bogeys to jump up 22 spots on the leaderboard and into a tie for 13th.
“There were plenty of days you were sitting in an office waiting for the green light (from doctors) not knowing if that green light was going to come,” said Engler, who began working with Sea Island (Ga.) swing coach Todd Anderson in March.
In 2006, he’ll join the 31 other Q-School grads in an office with a view on the PGA Tour.
Almost as inspiring as Engler’s story is that of Danny Ellis. After missing much of 2005 with an ailing back, Ellis vaulted into the top 30 in dramatic fashion. Playing his final hole, the par-5 18th on Panther Lake, Ellis was at 9 under and figured he needed a birdie to earn his card on the number. From a buried lie in front of the green, he dug his chip shot out of the deep rough, and 20 yards later, the ball vanished into the hole.
“It came out soft . . . just perfect,” said Ellis, who ended up needing the eagle he made to secure his card at 11 under. “This is it. This is what you live for. This is what you play for.”
Although not as dramatic, Marco Dawson’s finish also was worthy of the highlight reel.
Few would have blamed Dawson if he had loaded up his RV parked adjacent to the practice range and headed down Interstate 4 after opening with rounds of 76-73. He wouldn’t have been alone. By week’s end, 11 players had withdrawn.
However, Dawson played his final 72 holes in 19 under – including a near-flawless 64 Sunday on Crooked Cat – and proved to be the ultimate distance runner in golf’s most grueling marathon.
“After opening with a 76 you have two thoughts,” said Dawson, who was making his sixth appearance at final stage. “At least I’ve got five more rounds to make it up, but at the same time I played so bad. You either withdraw or do the best you can.”
Things weren’t nearly as difficult for fellow veteran Allen, who led the event through four rounds. After a dozen trips to final stage, Allen exchanged his normal transportation (a motorcycle) for an understated family wagon for the week. He also traded his normal, tense MO – at least for 54 holes – for a relaxed, almost indifferent approach.
“I guess the reason I do so well here is because everybody else is as nervous as I usually am,” said Allen, who earned his eighth promotion via the qualifier.
As predicted, Bill Haas’ best finally proved good enough. After near misses at last year’s Q-School – where he missed earning his card by two shots – and on the Nationwide Tour this season – where he finished 23rd on the money list – the 2004 College Player of the Year survived an eventful final round to finish among a group of seven at 11 under.
Haas, who began the final 18 holes on the bubble at 11 under, bogeyed three of his first six holes on the back nine and needed a key par save at 16 and back-to-back birdies to close his round and close the book on a rocky first full season as a pro.
“I was shaking (on his final putt at No. 18),” said Haas, whose father, PGA Tour veteran Jay Haas, followed him the final three rounds. “I was definitely nervous, especially on the last hole.”
Asked about the 2-footer at 18 that landed his card, Haas said, “It felt like 6 feet.”
As inevitable as Haas’ ascent to the PGA Tour seemed, Holmes’ romp, at least when the week began, was the stuff of fantasy.
Since 2000, only three players (Jeremy Anderson, 2000; Luke Donald, 2001; and Hunter Mahan, 2003) went from college to making it through all three Q-School stages the same year. Yet joining Holmes next year on Tour will be fellow freshly minted pros Nicholas Thompson and Jeff Overton.
All three – along with Michael Putnam, who struggled on OCN’s Bermuda greens and tied for 88th – delayed turning pro after May’s NCAA Championship rto play for the United States at the Walker Cup. The pressure-packed matches turned out to be the perfect warm-up for Q-School.
“The amount of pressure at that (Walker Cup) is something we draw upon,” said Thompson, who started slowly with a 74 before posting five consecutive sub-par rounds to tie for third. “There’s just as much pressure at the Walker Cup as here, if not more.”
Holmes – who has never met a par 5 he didn’t like – made the most of his booming drives and fearless approach on a pair of courses that played more than 7,300 yards apiece. For the week, he played the par 5s in 19 under, making three eagles.
“The Walker Cup you didn’t want to end, and this tournament you can’t wait for it to be over,” said Holmes, who has played only two pro events outside of Q-School.. “(Q-School) is not really fun at all.”
Six days worth of gnash-your-teeth pressure may have been no fun for Holmes, but to the unfortunate and unlucky the event is akin to some sadistic version of “Groundhog Day.” This is, after all, Q-School. the tournament one golf writer dubbed the meanest means to an ends in all of sports.
Young gun Peter Tomasulo seemed on track for a Tour card when he stepped to the first tee for his final round. Four bogeys and a double bogey later, the affable Californian was three shots outside the top 30 and headed back to the Nationwide Tour.
Tom Johnson, who began the final day on the bubble, suffered an equally painful fall, bogeying two of his first four holes in Round 6 and failing to make a birdie on the back nine. He missed by a stroke.
Veteran Bob Heintz also came up short when he bogeyed the 11th hole and finished at 10 under.
“I’m baked,” Heintz said. “In this kind of wind you cannot lose focus for a second. It makes you do weird stuff if you’re not on your mental game.”
Briny Baird, this year’s perpetual bubble boy – he slipped out of the top 125 on the money list following a poor finish at the season-ending Southern Farm Bureau Classic – missed earning his card by one shot after starting his final round bogey-bogey. Tommy Tolles made five birdies in nine holes to make a charge, then missed his card by two shots when he doubled his final hole of the tournament.
At least those players were able to cling to their Tour card hopes for as long as possible. Mike Perez’s aspirations ended four holes into the tournament when he took a 9 on Panther Lake’s par-3 fourth hole.
As for Engler, his aspirations were exceeded.After two years of painful uncertainty, a life he once feared was forever beyond him has become a reality.
“If anything, I’ve learned from my accident to try to do my best to stay in the moment,” Engler said. “It’s a much more present world to me today.”
Engler left OCN to join former Clemson standouts Lucas Glover, Jonathan Byrd and Charles Warren at a charity event in South Carolina to benefit the university’s golf program.
A few weeks later, Engler will join them on the PGA Tour – a moment he thought might never come.