I really don't feel much different today from the way I felt
when I was 18. All a guy needs to keep going in tournament golf
is good health, the same ambition he had when he was younger,
and maybe two or three putts that fall at the right time.
--LEE TREVINO, at age 40, to Herbert Warren Wind
I whipped out my Big Bertha driver and paced back and forth
across the sun-scorched 16th tee box at The Ranch Country Club
in McKinney, Texas, with a southwestern wind howling in my ears
and Trevino's reassuring words echoing in my brain. It was early
in round 1 of Stage One of the 1995 PGA Tour Qualifying
Tournament. I had just won the honor for the first time that
morning, a distinction I hadn't achieved in a four-day
tournament for a quarter of a century.
Back in 1970, at the know-it-all age of 18, I had resigned my
No. 1 spot on the Harvard golf team to become a muckraking
journalist instead of a trap-raking Tour rabbit and vowed to
never again set spikes on a country club. I had made this
dubious decision on the otherwise fine spring day when the golf
coach informed me that The Country Club in Brookline would
revoke our team's playing privileges unless I got a haircut. The
very next day all the colleges at Harvard went on strike to
protest the war in Vietnam, and all final exams, athletics and
haircuts were canceled.
Now, at the short-haired and farsighted age of 43, having played
an average of less than 18 holes per annum in the intervening 25
years, I had resolved to recover my lost youth--and my scratch
handicap--by embarking on an intensive training program under the
tutelage of some of the country's top teaching pros with the
goal of making it all the way to the PGA Tour at long last. I
was acting out a fantasy shared by every middle-aged amateur
from Peoria to Perth who has ever birdied two holes in a row.
And to the undisguised surprise of my Q school playing partners,
both of whom were born the year I quit college golf, I was
giving it a pretty fair shot so far. After three-putting for a
bogey on number 10, our opening hole, then faltering again on
14, I had birdied the par-3 15th by whacking a wholehearted
five-iron to 10 feet and slamming my sidehill putt into the back
of the cup. That put me at one over for the day with three
potential birdie holes left on the back side. Number 16, the
hole at hand, was the trickiest but also the most tantalizing. A
dogleg-right par-5 flanked by a man-made lake that ran from tee
to green, it was listed at 549 yards on the scorecard, but you
could easily reach the green in 2 if you were brave enough to
slide your drive to the corner.
Unfortunately, I had plenty of time to second-guess my strategy.
One of the members of the threesome in front of mine suffered
from a unique disability that compelled him to flop down on his
belly to line up any putt over three inches in length. As a
result he and his group were quite literally playing at a
snail's pace. But the threesome in front of them was even
slower, and the belly flopper could not hit his second shot
until the 16th green cleared. My playing partners remained cool.
Shane Bertsch, a sallow-complexioned, 25-year-old Nike tour
rookie, was accustomed to 5 1/2-hour rounds. He merely flipped
his Oakleys up and down and chortled. Ren Budde, a long-hitting
24-year-old with light brown hair, tan slacks and an earth-toned
edge that came from banging around the Texas barbecue circuit,
shook his head and rolled his eyes every time the belly flopper
missed a putt.
"I just wish he'd make a few so we don't have to stay out here
until dark," Ren said, sighing.
As the wait continued, I gulped two more Advil. The existential
eeriness of the Ranch provided a perfect backdrop for Q school,
the most inappropriately named contest in all of sports. Though
sometimes described as the Tour's version of the bar exam, Q
school is more like a country-club-hopping outdoor insane asylum
with inmates who have handicaps of two or under and pay entry
fees of $3,000 each in hopes that they can get in, get out and
never ever be forced to return again by retaining their PGA Tour
player cards. The odds of starting at Stage One and making it
through Stage Two and the Finals (252 holes) all the way to the
big show are roughly comparable to those of hitting a one-iron
through the eye of a needle. In 1994, only 11 players from the
original 1,000-man field at nine Stage One sites around the
country accomplished the feat, the most in recent memory. The
oldest man to do it for the first time was journeyman Jimmy
Powell, who won his card in 1980 at the age of 45.
In my quixotic quest to follow in his Foot-Joys, I had spent the
previous four months competing in various amateur tournaments, a
Hooters tour event and a Nike tournament Monday qualifier. I was
quickly reminded that golf is not a noncontact sport. Before,
during and after each round, I suffered injuries, ranging from a
pinched nerve in the C-6 area of my cervical spine to a hip
pointer and a badly strained psoas, as well as an assortment of
calluses and blisters too mundane to mention.
As Q school approached, I kept trying to whirlpool away my
ailments and continued to search for tips that could take my
game over the top. With the help of Eden Foster, head pro at the
Maidstone Club in Easthampton, Long Island, I struggled to bring
my notoriously quick tempo down to Tour-average speed. Then I
flew to Houston for a series of lessons with the legendary Dick
Harmon, who prescribed a destraightening of my downswing.
"People like my father [Claude Harmon Sr.] used to say you
should hit down the line," Harmon declared. "But the golf
swing's not a line--it's a circle."
Next I sought out Austin-based short-game guru Tom Jenkins, who
gave me a crash course in controlling distances of wedge and
sand shots by calibrating my backswing like the hour hand of a
clock. I then asked sports psychologist Bob (Doc) Rotella,
Ph.D., to help get my mental game in shape for Q school. "I want
you to spend a good 20 minutes every night with the phone off
the hook thinking about playing great in Stage One," Rotella
said. "And get your mind totally wired for playing to win. The
worst thing you can do is start playing to qualify. You'll
either make it on the number or miss it by a shot."
Rotella warned that my Q school competitors were likely to be
nasty, brutish and short in their attitude toward me, and
intimidatingly long off the tee. He urged me to keep as far away
from them as possible. "I don't want you exposed to all their
anxiety," he explained. When I actually arrived at the Ranch a
few weeks later, I found this year's contestants to be a whole
lot looser and more diverse--as well as a whole lot longer off
the tee--than Rotella had predicted. There was the annual crop of
hot shots fresh out of college, a score of guys in their mid- to
late 20's who had tuned up on mini-tours like the Hooters and
the Lone Star, a few Nike tour vets, a threesome of Argentines
and a contingent of South Africans led by Deane Pappas, who had
played college golf (and learned to spit tobacco) at the
University of Arkansas.
That night, alone in my room, I tried to concentrate on the
detailed pretournament ritual prescribed by Rotella. First, I
yanked my golf bag out of the trunk and lugged it inside. ("I've
heard too many horror stories about guy's getting their sticks
stolen the night before a big tournament," Doc had said.) I
scrubbed my clubs in the marble vanity, dug out my spikes and
retightened the screws. Then I marked two sleeves of Maxflis
with an identifying H.
I laid out my attire for round 1, a solemn rite in which naive
superstitions and sponsorship considerations dictated the
selection of every article. Next I set all three of the alarm
clocks I had brought along on specific instructions from
Rotella. "You can't just rely on a wake-up call or one alarm,"
Doc had cautioned. "What if they forget to call or your alarm
doesn't go off? In some other sport, a coach would take care of
these things. But in golf, you're on your own."
After several fitful readings of Rotella's instructions, I lay
down on the bed and turned to the most crucial exercise of all:
visualizing my opening round. My threesome would be teeing off
on number 10, a nasty little 390-yard par-4. I was still even
par when, in my mind, I got to 16. There I was struck by a
strategic epiphany. I realized that I didn't even have to reach
the putting surface in 2 to make birdie. In fact, it was wise to
lay up because of the inherent treacheries of the humpbacked
green. All I needed was a gentle draw off the tee, then a smooth
two-iron to the patch of fairway beyond the water. That would
allow me to play a routine pitch to any pin placement. I got my
dream round rolling full steam by sinking an eight-foot
downhiller for a bird on 16, made the turn in two under--and
opened my eyes.
My threesome of alarm clocks showed that it was getting on
toward 11 p.m. I had to be up by half past six since it took a
good two hours just to do all the stretching needed to limber up
my prearthritic joints. As I dozed off, I kept mumbling Doc
Rotella's mnemonic mantra, spelling out the most important thing
I had to do to turn my fantasies into reality: "You've got to
get into your own little world--and stay there."
By the time the belly flopper's threesome finally moved on
toward the 16th green the following morning, the Advil had
quieted my back pain, but my own little world had become a
mighty nerve-racking place. I kept worrying that I wouldn't be
able to pick up or even maintain my scoring on the holes ahead.
I reminded myself that I was only one shot off the pace I had
set for myself in the previous night's dream round. My self
didn't seem reassured. In the course of my protracted tee-box
pacing, my throat had gotten as parched as the cart paths and my
hands had started shaking. I tried to focus on my preselected
target--the gaping garage-door hole of a two-story brick house
under construction about 400 yards down the left side of the
fairway--but I kept catching glimpses of the lake on the right.
"O.K., nice and smooth," I whispered, taking my driver stance
and exhaling a deep breath as the dicta of Dick Harmon, Tom
Jenkins, Eden Foster and Doc Rotella simultaneously rushed
through my consciousness. "Just turn your shoulders, bring it
inside and remember, the golf swing's not a line--it's a circle."
Amid this last-second flood of swing thoughts, I somehow
neglected to watch the club head come through at impact. All I
recall is the horror of watching my tee shot start out on line
with the garage door, then veer sharply to the right in a banana
"Oh, Lord," I cried. "Is that where I think it is?"
"Yep," one of my companions confirmed, "you're wet."
I might as well have played the rest of the round in scuba gear
and flippers. Instead of an easy birdie on 16, I took a
hard-to-swallow double bogey. As the day wore on, my confidence
steadily evaporated. I committed errors I hadn't made since I
was 11 years old, chili-dipping wedges, smothering middle irons
and, in obvious overreaction to my errant tee shot on 16,
pulling drives I intended to fade.
I was snowballing--building up bigger and rounder numbers with
every roll of my Maxfli--and I ended up shooting 81, a snowman
with staff. That put me at nine over par and a daunting 18 shots
behind the first-round leader, Edward Fryatt.
Having watched Bertsch and Budde, who had suffered but gotten it
up and down enough to shoot 71 and 69, respectively, I realized
the difference between real pros and the rest of us, them and
me. Early on, I had had two of the elements in the Trevino
formula for success: youthful ambition and a couple of timely
putts. It was good health--mostly of the mental variety--that
I wound up getting an education at Q school after all, for the
next 54 holes turned out to be a priceless if predictably
humbling experience. My double-bogey-bloated scores rose and
fell and rose again in concert with my Advil intake and
spasmodic mental lapses: 83-77-80.
What most surprised me and my fellow competitors, however, was
how low the scores were--and that they kept dropping rather than
rising on Friday, a.k.a. Choke Day. Pappas was medalist with an
18-under-par total of 270. Thirty-one other players started
round 4 at four under or better, but it took six under to stay
comfortably above the cut. Thirty-three made it, including
Bertsch and Budde, who finished seven under. In 1994 the cut
line in Stage One at the Ranch had been even par.
My astronomical total left me 38 strokes from qualifying, but I
still tied or beat eight others. While spared the embarrassment
of being high man--that distinction went to a black-hatted fellow
who finished 52 over--I was still feeling pretty low-down. I had
spent more than four months and upward of $15,000, and had
nothing to show for it except a good tan and a bad back. Then I
ran into Dean Sessions, a 45-year-old former college baseball
star from Broomfield, Colo., who had busted out of his eighth Q
school at 19 over.
Sessions confided that in the seven years since he turned pro at
age 38, he had played in 120 professional qualifiers and spent
$180,000 in entry fees and travel expenses. He had sold his
house and borrowed on his credit cards. Although he had
qualified for one Nike and one regular Tour event, his total
winnings were zero.
"When you've done this literally over 100 times, people start to
think you're crazy," he admitted. "But I'm not giving up. I'm
going to keep doing what I have to do to be competitive. The
first thing my wife said when I walked in the door the other
night was, 'We're on a five-year plan now to work toward the
Senior tour. You've been playing against 20- and 30-year-olds.
When you get out on the Senior tour, things are going to be
Hearing that, I immediately knew how I was going to spend the
next seven years of my life.