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By REX HOGGARD
WINTER GARDEN, Fla. – Two years ago, across these same windswept hills in Central Florida, they beat the odds just as surely as any down-on-his-luck pony who’s ever made an improbable dash for the roses.
Twenty-four months ago, four young men arrived at Q-School’s final exam at Orange County National fresh from the United States’ one-point Walker Cup victory at Chicago Golf Club. By the time 108 holes inched by, three of them had made the improbable leap from hungry amateur to hired PGA Tour gun.
See also: Players to watch at LPGA Q-school
If anything can prep a Tour hopeful for the grind of the Fall Classic, it is the trial-by-fire nature of the Walker Cup. Whether Nicholas Thompson, J.B. Holmes and Jeff Overton would have navigated the Q-School minefield without the rigors of the Walker Cup on their resumes is stuff for fortune tellers. But it’s impossible to look at the class of 2005 and not think the it had some influence.
Holmes won Q-School in a rout – becoming the first college player to leave school and win final stage in the same year since Willie Wood in 1983 – and validated his medal with a breakthrough victory a few months later at the FBR Open.
Overton also kept his card in 2006, finishing No. 123 on the money list. He ended this year at 99th with over $1 million.
Although Thompson failed to keep his card two seasons ago, he rebounded this year to finish sixth on the Nationwide Tour money list and earn his return to the Tour.
On Wednesday, three more Walker Cup veterans will get their chance to follow another American team victory with individual accomplishments.
Colt Knost can bookend a stellar amateur season this week at OCN. The Southern Methodist graduate won the U.S. Amateur Public Links, U.S. Amateur, shot a second-round 64 at the Byron Nelson Championship and went undefeated at Royal County Down (2-0-2) before he traded in his amateur status and a free pass to Augusta National this April.
“Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as much pressure as I did at the Walker Cup,” Knost said. “When they announced, ‘Representing the United States,’ my heart was pounding. Winning the events I have and playing the Walker Cup prepared me so much. I have a lot more experience than the other younger guys.”
Dustin Johnson, who paired with Knost in Saturday and Sunday foursomes, went 1-1-1 for the United States in Northern Ireland and cruised through the first two stages of Q-School. The Coastal Carolina product has a long game similar to Holmes’, an element some say is more important on the two sprawling OCN layouts than any amateur accomplishments.
“There’s a lot to be said for how these courses were set up last time,” said Andy Dawson, a player development representative with Cleveland Golf. “Their games fit these types of courses. It’s also more about the success of younger players in general. Overall, the play of college and junior players has gotten better.”
Maybe the most confident member of the Walker Cup threesome is Chris Kirk, who shared medalist honors at second stage in Arizona and compiled a 1-1-0 record on the Emerald Isle.
The University of Georgia All-American carded four rounds in the 60s at second stage. Kirk says part of that success comes from the Walker Cup, and part comes from a swing that finally feels comfortable.
The atmosphere of the Walker Cup, which Kirk said was the “most intimidating” he’d ever experienced, likely strengthened the trio’s resolve. But Kirk said they will feel the pressure inherent to the two events at different times.
“The first tee at the Walker Cup was unbelievable,” said Kirk, who also has the length to excel on Panther Lake and Crooked Cat layouts that have been stretched to 7,350 and 7,493 yards, respectively.
“But at Q-School, it’s the last couple of days when you start feeling it. It’s a different kind of pressure. We’ll see what happens on Sunday and Monday.”
If history and logic hold, it’s a good bet that Kirk, Knost and Johnson will be among the top 25 players and ties who earn their 2008 Tour cards.
Even if the odds are against first-timers.
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Rex Hoggard is a Golfweek senior writer. To reach him e-mail [email protected]