LA QUINTA, Calif. – No one needs to be reminded that this is the final Q-School that will offer PGA Tour cards. That fact has been noted innumerable times. What is worth mentioning is that many players who’d normally skip this 108-hole event are trying to take one more shot at Tour status, giving this year’s Q-School one of the strongest fields in the event’s history.
Four players in the top 60 of the Official World Golf Ranking are here, more than were in the final PGA Tour event of the season. This year’s Q-School features a strong international contingent, as well as the usual mix of promising prospects and past PGA Tour winners.
Play get underway Wednesday at PGA West, with more than 170 players competing for 25 PGA Tour cards.
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1. INTERNATIONAL AFFAIR: This year’s Q-School features four players ranked in the top 60 in the Official World Golf Ranking: Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano (No. 33 in the OWGR), Alex Noren (51), Rafael Cabrera-Bello (53) and Marcus Fraser (58). That’s more than this year’s PGA Tour finale, the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic, which had just one.
These players went to great lengths to get to PGA West. All four competed at the European Tour finale, the 60-player DP World Tour Championship, that ended Sunday in Dubai. France’s Romain Wattel, No. 164 in the Official World Golf Ranking, also commuted from Dubai to the California desert. Wattel and Noren also participated in Q-School’s second stage in the States the week before Dubai. Fernandez-Castano (Italian Open) and Cabrera-Bello (Dubai Desert Classic) won on the European Tour this year.
They’re not the only notable Euros in the field. Former Ryder Cuppers Ross Fisher (2010) and Robert Karlsson (2006, ’08) also advanced to Q-School’s final stage. Fisher is No. 99 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Karlsson once was a top-10 player in the OWGR and has won 11 times on the European Tour.
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2. CARRYING THE FLAG: The Europeans weren’t the only ones to cross an ocean to come to Q-School. There’s a strong Korean contingent in California, and for good reason. Their countrymen have had success in this tournament.
South Korea is the only country, besides the United States, to have multiple players graduate from each of the past two Q-Schools. Bio Kim and Sung Kang did so in 2010, though both have since lost their card (Kim is exempt on next year’s Web.com Tour, while Kang is at Q-School). The 2011 graduates, Seung-Yul Noh and Sang-moon Bae, had more success. Noh, 21, was 49th on the PGA Tour money list. Bae lost the Transitions Championship in a playoff and made the quarterfinals of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
There are at least seven players in this week’s field from Korea. They include Hyung-sung Kim, who’s No. 127 in the OWGR, and Meen-Whee Kim, who beat PGA Tour players Kevin Na, Paul Casey, Charlie Wi, Noh, John Huh and 2011 Presidents Cup participant KT Kim in his last start before Q-School’s second stage.
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3. YOUNG GUNS: Young players are the ones that will be most-heavily impacted by the Q-School changes. No longer can they use this tournament as a springboard from college to the PGA Tour. Most players will have to serve a one-year apprenticeship on the Web.com Tour before making it to The Show.
This year’s Q-School is chock full of promising young prospects, led by Patrick Cantlay, who’s in the finals after turning pro earlier this year. He’s already exempt on the Web.com Tour for 2013 after finishing 79th on the money list in just four starts.
Cantlay is one of five 2012 All-Americans who’ve advanced to Q-School finals in their first year as a pro. Chattanooga’s Stephan Jaeger is the only 2012 first-teamer to do so. Cantlay is the only second-team All-American in this year’s field, though fellow second-teamers Luke Guthrie and Ben Kohles already earned 2013 PGA Tour cards via the Web.com Tour. Other 2012 All-Americans to advance to finals in their first Q-School try are Baylor’s Joakim Mikkelsen (third team), Georgia Tech’s James White (third team) and UNLV’s Derek Ernst (honorable mention).
Mikkelsen is the 2012 Big 12 champ. White was a first-team All-American in 2011; he shot 18 under (65-64-66) in the final three rounds of his second-stage site after opening with a 2-over 73. Ernst was a semifinalist at the past two U.S. Amateur Public Links, losing in the 2011 final to Corbin Mills.
Here are several other names who’ve turned pro since the 2011 NCAA Championship and find themselves in this week’s field: 2011 U.S. Amateur champion Kelly Kraft, 2011 British Amateur winner Bryden Macpherson, 2010 NCAA champion Scott Langley, Augusta State All-American teammates Patrick Reed and Henrik Norlander, LSU’s Andrew Loupe, Oklahoma State teammates Kevin Tway and Morgan Hoffmann, Pepperdine’s Andrew Putnam, Wake Forest’s Lee Bedford and Northwestern’s David Lipsky.
Reed and Norlander led Augusta State to the 2010 and 2011 NCAA titles; Reed used Monday qualifiers and sponsor exemptions to earn more than $300,000 on the PGA Tour this season. Hoffmann already earned his 2013 PGA Tour card via this year’s Web.com Tour, but is trying to improve his status at Q-School. Putnam’s older brother, Michael, also is in this week’s field. Lipsky won the Asian Tour’s 2012 Q-School, then won his third start on that circuit.
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4. BACK TO THE FUTURE: Q-School also is where former PGA Tour winners are trying to regain past glory. No one represents this demographic better than Camilo Villegas, the 30-year-old who’s won three times on the PGA Tour. It was just four years ago that Villegas won two of the four FedEx Cup playoffs events (BMW Championship, Tour Championship). He finished 144th on this year’s money list, the first time he’s failed to keep his card in seven PGA Tour seasons. He had a chance to keep his card, entering the final round of this season in fifth place at the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic, but shot a final-round 74 to drop to 28th.
Villegas didn’t make excuses for his poor season. “You start getting hard on yourself,” he said at the CMNH Classic. “You want the best, especially I’m a hard worker, I’m a very passionate guy. But I beat myself up a little bit too much sometimes.”
This was Villegas’ first season in which he failed to earn more than $1 million. He was a PGA Tour rookie in 2006. Other past PGA Tour winners who are looking to regain their Tour cards this week include Daniel Chopra, Steve Flesch, Todd Hamilton, Len Mattiace, Billy Mayfair, Shaun Micheel and Heath Slocum.
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5. THIS CAMILO’S NOT HERE: Camilo Benedetti has had several close misses in his quest for his first PGA Tour card. He bogeyed his last hole at the 2010 Q-School to miss his card by a shot. He was in fourth place through two rounds of the 2011 Web.com Tour Championship before shooting 74-73 to finish fifth, three shots away from earning a PGA Tour card. He finished 26th on this year’s Web.com Tour money list, $941 from a PGA Tour card (the top 25 on the Web.com Tour money list earn PGA Tour cards).
Benedetti, 33, didn’t sign up for this year’s Q-School. It would seem a curious decision, but Benedetti’s agent, Kevin Canning, said it was intentional. Benedetti skipped Q-School for two reasons: he has a poor history at PGA West, and he wanted to use the lack of a Q-School safety net to inspire himself to earn his PGA Tour card via the Web.com Tour. Benedetti’s plan didn’t work out, though.
Benedetti was one of three players bounced from the top 25 on the Web.com Tour money list in the 2012 season’s final week. Another was Hudson Swafford, who also fell out of the all-important top 25 in the final day of the 2011 Q-School, shooting a final-round 73 to miss his card by two shots. He’ll try to avoid another close call this week.