Winter Garden, Fla.
The 108-hole marathon otherwise known as PGA Tour Qualifying School often is likened to a six-day root canal. One major difference: At least a root canal offers novocaine as an option.
Golf’s never-ending journey came to a merciful resolution Dec. 5 just a stone’s throw from Mickey’s Magic Kingdom on the outskirts of Orlando. The courses at Orange County National were perfect, the weather was Chamber of Commerce ordered. But nobody confused the place for Fantasyland.
Q-School is an event players vow never to see again. The cold reality is that many will be back – same time next year – for the most grueling and taxing job interview known to man. In what other vocation does an entire year’s employment rest on the shoulders of six days?
“The only challenge in Tour School,” said veteran Grant Waite, “is that they only give you one chance, and they say you’ve got to do it on this one week. There are a number of good players who won’t make it through this week who are deserving as anybody else to get on the Tour.”
As the days wore on, you could cut the tension with a chain saw. There was no arguing a great deal was at stake. Asked by The Golf Channel to compare the PGA Tour and Nationwide Tour, Tripp Isenhour quipped, “Steak and hamburger.” Trying to get to either can be pretty serious stuff.
But it’s not life and death.
“Not even close,” says Bobby Gage, 40, one of 165 players who teed it up last week in search of a 2006 PGA Tour card. “I used to think that way, I really did. For some people that may work, but it doesn’t for me anymore.”
His words aren’t empty ones. Two years ago, at this same tournament, on the Panther Lake Course, Gage stood on the green at the par-3 sixth hole in his opening round, stared out across a lake, and all of a sudden felt an incredible pressure building in his chest. He couldn’t catch his breath.
“I was looking into the water, and you’re watching your life flash before your eyes,” Gage said. “It’s a scary feeling. Honestly, the only time in my life that I’ve truly been scared.
“I’m wondering . . . ‘Wow, can this be it?’ ”
It wasn’t. He was whisked off the course and treated for a heart attack, which terrified him because his family has a history of heart problems. He even spent a night in the hospital (“Only night of my life I spent there,” he says proudly). To this day he doesn’t know what struck him. Doctors told him there are 12 to 15 things that cause the same symptoms as a heart attack.
A 5-foot-8 sparkplug whose emotions on the golf course spike like an EKG, Gage is taking better care of himself these days, and he arrived at Orange County National for his long haul last week armed with a new creed: “I’m trying not to let my golf game determine my attitude. I’m trying to let my attitude determine my golf game.”
If Q-School is measured as success or failure simply by whether one procures a PGA Tour card, then Gage’s week fell short. His putting is usually a forte, but at OCN it was a liability, costing him a chance at getting in the hunt. He would finish near the bottom of the pack. But by making it to the finals, he’ll at least have conditional status on the Nationwide Tour in 2006.
In 2005, Gage spent a good portion of his time playing a different game. Baseball. He played second base in a wood-bat adult league in the Orlando area. For whatever reason, the less golf he plays and more he rounds out his life, the more he finds he learns about being a golfer. Go figure.
A single man, Gage said golf too often has been his be-all, end-all. His game became a job. When he looked into the faces of his baseball teammates, most of whom use baseball as an escape from the daily drudgery of the 9-to-5 work grind, he saw enthusiasm. He saw excitement.
“That’s something I think I lost along the way,” he said about his golf. “Now I’m motivated to be out here.”
In recent weeks, Gage has had some long heart-to-heart talks with Rick Provost of Inspired Golf, a firm based at OCN that integrates the mental, physical and life training of players. Provost said Gage has expressed a desire to find a bigger-picture meaning in his life that transcends birdies and bogeys.
“He’s not out here to make birdies,” Provost said. “He’s here for a bigger purpose. If you focus solely on your job, on getting up at 5 a.m. and driving to work and trying to make ends meet, it can really beat you up. If you choose to focus instead on what you want out of life, then what you’re doing becomes a step to where you’re going. Golf is just a vehicle. The game becomes easier.”
Gage kept his nose in the Q-School dirt for most of the week, but he also talked about doing something bigger than just being a player. He wants to start giving back. He spent his summer working on a golf course maintenance crew, and he’d love to build a Little League field in his hometown of Winsted, Conn. He’d like to one-day share some wealth with his sisters, too.
The day before his first round at Q-School, he stepped into a classroom at OCN’s Professional Golfers Career College, addressing students who looked back at him with admiration. It moved him.
Believe it or not, he once was one of those kids, an 8-handicapper sitting in a classroom at the San Diego Golf Academy, hoping to maybe become a club pro. He exceeded that and has been a pro golfer for the better part of 15 years.
“I don’t believe this game owes anybody anything,” Gage said. “I think we owe everything to the game. I’ve gained some perspective. Winning golf tournaments doesn’t complete you as a person. I’m making sure I stop and smell the roses from now on. You know, maybe I can help some of those kids.”
Gage didn’t get his PGA Tour card. That’s OK.
As he departed Q-School, one got the sense he was on to something even bigger and better.
Like the rest of his life.