2006: Anthony Kim’s swagger and talent stands out

By Rex Hoggard

La Quinta, Calif.

The dawn of great careers seldom can be pinpointed on a calendar. Hall of Fame resumes almost always end with all manner of pomp, usually atop some stone bridge astride a murky burn. The outset of greatness, however, is normally elusive.

Yet at precisely 8:19 a.m. (PST) Nov. 29, a pair of prodigies with copious amounts of potential stepped to the first tee on PGA West’s Stadium Course for the first round in what some believe could one day become a great rivalry.

Jason Day, the promising Australian with the subsonic swing, and Anthony Kim, the temperamental Oklahoma Sooner with the South Central swagger, provided the most spark for this year’s Fall Classic, and perhaps a glimpse into the future.

If this is to be the first salvo in a great rivalry, give the 21-year-old Kim the clubhouse lead. The rail-thin Korean-American defied the legendary Q-School pressure, posting six solid rounds (74-69-67-69-69-72) on his way to a tie for 13th and his first trip to the PGA Tour.

“I worked pretty hard, and it seems a lot of people said I couldn’t do this,” said Kim, who tied for second in his first PGA Tour event as a professional (Valero Texas Open) shortly after signing a lucrative contract with Nike Golf.

“So this is very satisfying.”

Day – who at 19 was the youngest among the 163 Tour hopefuls – got sideways on the demanding Stadium layout too often and never factored into the race for 2007 status, tying for 119th. The Australian Amateur Stroke Play champion, who made nearly $175,000 in seven Tour starts in 2006, left the desert without a card for ’07. Know this: It won’t be the last you hear of him.

Welcome to the 2006 PGA Tour Qualifying School, the almost-exclusive realm of some of the game’s most obscure journeyman, past-their-warranty retreads and down-on-their-luck veterans. Amid a graduating class of 40 that featured only a half-dozen players 25 or younger, it was left to Kim to provide any measure of Q rating.

This was the curious Q-School. The no-name edition to the annual grind.

Despite its lack of collective pedigree, the ’07 class enjoys a salt-of-the-earth quality that is fueled by a genuine appreciation for what was accomplished and what could await.

This blue-collar collection included a burned-out mini-tour player turned club pro, a financially strapped former caddie and a career journeyman searching for answers to the most demanding mental questions in the darkest corners of his psyche.

George McNeill led the unlikely crop. The lanky Floridian lapped the field with a 23-under-par 409 for the largest margin of victory since 1997. It hardly was the performance one would expect from a player who was so burned out after a first-stage Q-School flameout in 2004 that he traded life among the play-for-pay set for a 9-to-5 gig selling shirts and tee times as an assistant club pro in his home state.

“I’m actually glad I did that because I know now I really don’t want to do that ever again,” said McNeill, 31, who went 39 holes without a bogey before his lone final-round miscue at No. 15. “That is motivation for me.”

Michael Boyd’s journey was even more improbable. He’d been here before. Four years ago, Boyd was at the final stage at PGA West – as a caddie. As recently as three years ago, he was a regular looper at Dallas National.

“This class is blue collar,” Boyd said. “Look at the guys that come out of here and you can tell they know about adversity.”

Not that Boyd, a talkative 30-year-old with a quick smile, made his maiden trip to “The Show” look as effortless as McNeill did.

After making the turn 2 over on the final day, Boyd started a familiar slide with bogeys at 13, 15 and 16 and dropped to 10 under for the tournament. But a crisp 7-iron to 12 feet at the sadistic, island-greened 17th averted a card collapse, and his closing bogey didn’t rob him of a shot at Tour glory.

Said William Lanier, Boyd’s caddie: “Remember in 1991, during the National League pennant game, the (Atlanta) Braves were down 2-1 and Sid Bream, who is slower than steam off a hot dog, was on second base. Francisco Cabrera hits this (single) to left field, and Bream just loafs around, just barely sliding home (in time). It was like everything was happening in slow motion.

“That’s the image that came to mind today when things started to go wrong.”

Bob Heintz wasn’t as lucky as Boyd at the 17th. He eased up on his 7-iron tee shot, connected with more earth than golf ball and watched his orb carom off the rocks and into the muddy pond.

“You stand there and you tell yourself ‘to trust it’ and it’s all just crap,” said Heintz, a Yale grad who, despite his watery double bogey, secured his return to the Tour with a tie for eighth.

Perhaps more important to Heintz than earning a card was his ability, at least until his 107th hole, to reduce the game’s most mentally-taxing marathon to an ongoing series of lesser battles.

“This is a golf psychologist’s laboratory,” said Heintz, who missed earning his card at last year’s Q-School by a shot. “You can’t grade yourself on 108 holes. It’s too much. So I just tried to focus on smaller goals and grade myself on that.”

As Heintz can attest, the difficulty of Q-School is directly proportional to the number of times a player has had to partake in the tournament’s unique form of pain. Of the 40 players who earned Tour cards, seven were playing in the final stage for the first time. And those who haven’t walked the Q-School plank have a vastly different perspective than those who have been jaded by the Fall Classic’s capricious ways.

One final-stage rookie dubbed the six-round examination “an adrenaline rush,” while another was bold enough to call it “fun.”

“I can tell you the guys that said that don’t have kids,” Heintz said.

The Class of 2006 is a country music song complete with a dead dog – Boyd’s dog died prior to him leaving for PGA West. Blue collar to the end, with a celebration short on champagne and long on suds of a simpler variety.

The only guy in the Coachella Valley who had a better week than McNeill, who corralled a career check of $50,000 for his victory, was the beer vendor at PGA West.

“I’m hitting the beer cart,” was John Mallinger’s first reaction after finishing off his final-round 70 to claim his first Tour card. And Steve Wheatcroft’s only plan after finishing seventh was to enjoy a brew and savor the moment.

“This may not be the best class,” Boyd said as he savored his Budweiser in the Stadium Course clubhouse late Monday. “But I guarantee you we will appreciate it.”

And if all the predictions swirling around the prodigious tandem of Kim and Day are realized, we may all come to appreciate Nov. 29 as the day a great rivalry started amid a class of little-known heroes.

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