Notes: Tales from PGA Tour Q-School path

Orange County National was the site of the 2010 PGA Tour Q-School.

Orange County National was the site of the 2010 PGA Tour Q-School.

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ORLANDO, Fla. – The PGA Tour is contemplating the radical change of handing out only Nationwide Tour cards at Q-School, in part to make sure promising young players are properly prepared for the big leagues.

Neale Smith can understand that thinking better than most.

Smith, an Australian living in Southern California, works as a mental coach for the likes of Hunter Mahan and Jason Day and as a swing coach for other players. In a previous life, he was one of the biggest surprises to make it through Q-School.

As a graduate assistant at Cal State-Fullerton, he taught golf among other activities. When he finished his master’s degree, Smith was good enough to break par and idealistic enough to chase his dream. An exceptional athlete – he competed at the 1984 Olympic trials in the high jump until getting injured – Smith dabbled in a couple of mini-tour event before trying Q-School.

He barely made it through the first two stages, and it all came together in the final stage at the TPC Woodlands, where he shared medalist honors with Brett Ogle, Skip Kendall, Massy Kuramoto and Percy Moss. Before he knew it, he was a PGA Tour member.

“I seriously thought I was going to be up there for 20 years,” Smith said. “But I had so little experience in tournament golf.”

He laughs now at his routine. Smith said he would stretch and work out for two hours, then go through a regular warmup on the range and play his round. He would be the last one on the range that night. He also fiddled with new equipment.

“If there are eight rookie errors, I made at least six of them,” he said. “All the stupid stuff you shouldn’t do, I did it. And it’s a huge gap from Q-School success to success on tour.”

That much was obvious by his results. He made only six cuts in 22 tournaments in 1993. His best finish was his last tournament of the year, a tie for 64th in the Texas Open. He wound up making $11,413 and was 234th on the money list.

He never made it back.

Smith’s amazing rags-to-riches tale got enough attention to earn sponsor exemptions in Australia, and he spent the next several years playing the Canadian Tour. He tried Q-School eight more times without getting through.

“One of my only regrets is that after being a touring pro for four or five years, I didn’t get another shot,” he said. “I was more prepared. I really knew what I was doing. There were so many other things I didn’t know how to do after I got my card. I learned over time. If I had ever gotten through Q-school again, I would have had a much more legitimate chance.”

The tour’s proposal is for PGA Tour players who failed to finish in the top 125 to compete in a three-event “playoff” with top Nationwide Tour players to determine who gets PGA cards the next year. The only cards available at Q-School would be for the Nationwide Tour.

The concern is losing out on stories like Smith.

“It takes some of the romanticism out of Q-School. Some of the stories seem compelling,” Smith said. “But I also think the Nationwide Tour is a much fairer test to see if you can survive. Some guys can get up there, but they’re not good enough to stay up there.”

• • •

MASTERS ON HIS MIND: It’s become a tired phrase that players have the Masters on their mind this time of the year. For Phil Mickelson, it has never been more true.

Mickelson is playing the Houston Open this week because he prefers to compete the week before a major. But given his disdain for the works of Rees Jones, who designed Redstone Golf Club, he said he will play shots that might not make a lot of sense, all to get ready for Augusta National.

“Houston is not going to set up well for me,” Mickelson said last week.

His biggest complaint is that the fairways narrow after about 285 yards off the tee, which tends to limit power players to a 3-wood off the tee. Mickelson plans to hit driver, anyway.

“It’s not going to be a course where I’m going to play the most strategic and expect to really score well,” he said. “I’m just not going to hit 3-woods off the tee and play that course strategically the week before Augusta. And then when it gets windy and I’m trying to hit high balls for Augusta, and it requires a low, knockdown shot ... it’s not going to work.”

This is a week where he’s not interested in results.

Mickelson doesn’t believe he has to win before he gets to the Masters – last year was proof of that – as long as he feels good about his game. He recalls starting to feel confident at Houston a year ago.

He also could put two drivers in play at Augusta. Mickelson said he has a similar driver to when he won the Masters in 2006, with 5.9 degrees of loft and a 46-inch shaft.

“And it goes,” he said with a smile. “Yeah, it really goes.”

• • •

TOP 100 COURSES: Augusta National again is No. 1 in Golf Digest’s biennial ranking of “America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses,” beating out Pine Valley Golf Club by a fraction of a point.

The most peculiar change about this year’s list is the title. Because of a tie for 100th place between two South Carolina resorts (Harbour Town and Ocean Forest) there actually are 101 courses on the list.

Augusta National has been No. 1 on the last two lists. The only other time in the last decade that Pine Valley didn’t top the list was in 2001, when Pebble Beach beat out the private New Jersey club.

The full top 10: Augusta National, Pine Valley, Shinnecock Hills, Oakmont, Cypress Point, Pebble Beach, Merion, Winged Foot, Sand Hills and National Golf Links.

Of the nine courses not in the previous ranking, the highest-rated was The Alotian Club in Arkansas at No. 14.

Golf Digest has produced “America’s 100 Greatest” list since 1966. The package, which also includes the 100 best public courses and a ranking for each state, appears in the May issue of the magazine, which will be available April 5.

• • •

DIVOTS: During the induction ceremony for the National Black Golf Hall of Fame, keynote speaker Steve Mona of the World Golf Foundation said plans were under way for a special exhibit at the World Golf Hall of Fame that would tell the story of blacks’ journey in golf. He said the exhibit would open in 2012. The inductees were Joe Louis Barrow, Jr., CEO of The First Tee; golf entrepreneur Rose Harper and Calvin Sinnette, author of “Forbidden Fairways.” ... Martin Laird’s win at Bay Hill was the 300th by a Nationwide Tour alumni. ... Nick Watney has earned the most ranking points this year, slightly more than Martin Kaymer and Mark Wilson.

• • •

STAT OF THE WEEK: Only three players among the top 50 in the world ranking were not there at the start of the year.

• • •

FINAL WORD: “I still have yet to play a great par 5 that’s over 600 yards.” – Jim Furyk.

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