Maginnes on Tap: Pressure of Q-School palpable
I honestly get a little queasy now just thinking about it and I haven't been to a Q-School in half a dozen years. I will be there this year on course for the Golf Channel and I feel like I will be returning to the scene of the crime that stole a piece of my soul and my youth. In return, I learned more about myself in a week than I have in any single year since.
The sleepless nights have already started for the 2012 class. The six-hour practice rounds are underway. Many of the contestants at the finals of Q-School skipped Thanksgiving to head to Palm Springs early to prepare. But nothing can prepare you for the finals of Q-School. Several of this years contestants have won major championships. David Duval is a former World No. 1, but he has never successfully navigated Q-School. There is no way to prepare for a tournament where your career is at stake.
Jay Haas made an interesting comment about pressure when he was describing his son's playoff at the Tour Championship this fall. He said that every player has a threshold of nerves, and once you have reached that threshold you can't get any more nervous. That is true for every week of the year on the PGA Tour, including major championships. But Q-School is different because you reach your threshold of nerves before the tournament even starts. For the six long days those nerves eat away at your resolve and work their way into the motion that you have spent years learning to repeat.
To make matters worse this year, the venue for Q-School is one of the most demanding and penal that has ever been played. The Stadium Course at PGA West is a masterpiece of deception and hazard. There is quirkiness and water at every turn. One ill-timed misstep can mean another year on the Nationwide Tour and an opportunity missed.
At PGA West in 2002, Vance Veazey stood on the tee of the par-3 17th in the final round and watched the two groups in front of him play while he waited. The 170-yard par 3 is the island green known as Alcatraz – where Lee Trevino famously made a hole-in-one in the Skins Game nearly 30 years ago. The hole hasn't gotten any easier. It is 35 yards longer than the 17th at Sawgrass and the tee is elevated. Quite simply it is the toughest shot under the most daunting circumstances. After a nearly 20-minute wait, Veazey – who was four or five shots inside the number to get his PGA Tour card – backed off the tee shot a couple of times. When he finally let loose with his swing something very wrong happened. Veazey shanked it dead right. The ball missed the lake to the right and rattled around in the dessert. However, as if by some divine intervention, the ball bounded out of the dessert, across the cart path and came to rest on the forward tee 100 yards from the hole. Vance started to breath again. He wedged his second shot onto the green and went on to earn his Tour Card.
Strange things happen at Q-School. There is an eerie other-worldliness to it. I was standing on that same tee watching Veazey, and wondering how I was going to get it to the house. There is nowhere to bail out. There is nowhere to go. A half-hour later, I hit the green somehow and managed to survive the final hole to earn my card at the finals again.
Ironically, Q-School tends to lean the hardest on those players who have been to the PGA Tour and are trying to fight their way back there. They know what life is like at golf's highest level. They know what opportunity awaits those who can handle this gauntlet one more time, and only one more time.
This year, 25 players will earn cards. Some will be returning to the PGA Tour, while others will have earned the right to play in their first PGA Tour event. What they will have in common is that they managed to survive golf's hardest test. They will forever remember the experience, but they won't talk much about it. They won't talk about it for the same reason that lawyers don't talk about the bar exam. They expected to get through. They expected to pass. And ultimately that is where the pressure looms heaviest.
Q-School is about having everything on the line. It would be easy to say that for a kid just out of college that he has nothing to lose at the finals. But he knows the college parties that he has missed to hit golf balls and work on his short game. He put in the work on Saturdays in the fall while his friends were tailgating. He can't describe the motivation or the desire, but he can show it. All of those years of sacrifice come down to this week and there won't be another week like it for another year. In terms of his career, he has everything to gain, but when your life's dream is on the line you have everything to lose, too.