They are the banished tribe of professional golf, a small,
nomadic group of players in search of their homeland. They
travel on the fringes of two tours--the PGA and the Nike--eking
out a living while trying to chase down a dream. The only
certainty in their lives is the uncertainty of not knowing where
they'll wind up playing, how they'll get there, what lumpy
mattress they'll crash on and whether there will be a check at
the end of the week to pay for it all.
Every year 25 players get sent on this wandering journey by
finishing 126th to 150th on the PGA Tour's official money list,
thereby just missing the full-time exempt status conferred upon
the top 125 money winners. If they subsequently flunk out of Q
school, the qualifying tournament that rewards 40 players and
ties with Tour cards, they are doomed to a year of loitering
around locker rooms as nonexempt alternates, praying for
"You wind up hoping for nasty weather, or a flu bug, or anything
that'll keep guys away and get you into the tournament," says
four-year Tour veteran Emlyn Aubrey (140th), one of 15
alternates who didn't make it through Q school for this year's
Tour. "Otherwise, you do a lot of standing around looking stupid."
Adds 20-year vet Bob Gilder (138th), "It's not the easiest way
to do things out here, that's for sure. You better understand
how the [alternate] game is played ahead of time, or you're
going to wind up beating your head against the wall."
March 11, 1996
The teeth-gnashing for alternates starts every Friday at 5 p.m.,
the deadline for exempt PGA Tour players to commit to the
following week's tournament. These first dibs for spots in a
usual 144-man field go to the top 125, the five leading money
winners from the previous season's Nike tour and a handful of
other players, such as past champions of that particular
tournament. As many as eight players get sponsor's exemptions,
and four more slip in through Monday qualifying. The next 47
slots go to the Q-school grads (there were 42 this year because
of ties) and the five players who finished sixth through 10th on
the previous year's Nike tour money list. For the alternates,
deliverance will come only if enough of the above players decide
to take the week off.
There is an answering machine that the alternates can check on
Friday evenings to learn their fate. "It's like calling the
doctor to find out if you have some kind of disease," says
Aubrey. The news is delivered in three little words, such as
"School plus three." This would mean all Q-schoolers (with the
sixth- through 10th-place '95 Nike grads lumped in) squeaked by,
as well as the three alternates who ranked highest on the
previous year's money list. The alternates who don't get in can
still show up at the PGA Tour tournament and hope for hangovers,
hangnails or anything else that forces players in the field to
withdraw. Or they can play on the Nike tour, if one of its 26
annual events is being held that week.
To get an idea how maddening this all can be, check out the last
five weeks of Aubrey's life: In the first week of February he
snuck into the bloated 181-man field at the AT&T Pebble Beach
National Pro-Am, his first tournament of the year, only to have
it washed out. After a three-day trip home to Phoenix to see his
pregnant wife, Cindy, Aubrey flew to San Diego on Feb. 7, the
eve of the Buick Invitational, because he had moved up to the
second alternate. No luck. He spent two days at the tournament
practicing and on Saturday flew to the Hawaiian Open, which is
so far off the beaten path that everybody got in. His eight days
on Oahu went swimmingly, as he tied for 11th and made $25,440.
He showed up on Sunday night in L.A. as the fifth alternate for
the Nissan Open, but he expected a number of players to be
scared off by Riviera's subpar greens. But by Wednesday
afternoon he hadn't moved, and 5 p.m. that evening was the
deadline to commit to the San Jose Open, the Nike tour's season
opener, which was starting the next morning. Aubrey made the
call, hopped a puddle-jumper that night to San Jose and wound up
21st, cashing in for $1,705. That brought him to last weekend's
Inland Empire Open in Moreno Valley, Calif., the second stop on
the Nike tour, where he finished 22nd.
A bitter footnote: Had Aubrey shaved one measly shot off his
score in Hawaii, he would have tied for sixth, which would have
guaranteed him a spot in the Nissan Open, because the top 10
finishers of each tournament are exempt for the next week's
event. Also, the additional money and potential winnings in L.A.
would have given him a great shot to make the Bay Hill
Invitational next week, which takes the top 70 current money
winners. "It's fun to look back and see how much one shot cost
me," Aubrey says, deadpan. An easygoing, agreeable fellow, he
can laugh at the craziness, but not all the time. "Sometimes you
can't help but be embarrassed with your situation," he says.
Gilder knows the feeling. A six-time winner on Tour, he has
never before been on the outside looking in. Gilder blew into
L.A. from his home in Oregon on a Wednesday night, when he moved
up to first alternate, but he too was stranded on the sidelines.
He spent Thursday morning sheepishly waiting in front of his
locker, feeling out of place and forgotten. "It was a rude
awakening," says Gilder. "It really hit home how quickly things
can be taken away."
Gilder came away with a new resolve to get it all back. His
22nd-place finish at the Inland Empire Open was his Nike tour
debut, at age 45. "I'm not too proud to come out here," he says.
"Some guys think they're too good for this tour, but I don't.
Shoot, I'd dig ditches to support my family."
It was with that kind of humility that Gilder wrote to the
tournament directors of nearly all the PGA Tour events, asking
for a sponsor's exemption, an alternate's last resort. So far he
has been rewarded with three--the Nortel Open (where he missed
the cut), Bob Hope (71st) and Phoenix (missed the cut again).
Gilder appreciates these invites, but there also have been
slights. At last week's Doral-Ryder Open in Miami he was passed
over in favor of Ray Floyd's son Robert, a sophomore in college,
and Gary Nicklaus, a mediocre player on the Asian mini-tour.
"The process is so political," Gilder says. "I mean, if Jack
Nicklaus wants to play with his son, are they gonna take Bob
Gilder and say no to Jack Nicklaus?"
Unfortunately, it's only going to get harder from here. The
first two months of the season provide an alternate with his
best chance of getting into PGA Tour events, because most of
golf's glamour-pusses take a siesta during the West Coast swing,
known to them as the Rest Coast. With the eastward ho of the
Tour, which began last week in Miami, the big-name slackers
start to bump the wannabes out of tournament fields.
Thus the Nike tour will serve as the primary business address
for the alternates over the next couple of months. Five
tournaments on the PGA Tour between now and mid-June are
limited-field events, and the others will swell with exempt
players tuning up for the Masters and the U.S. Open. During the
dog days of summer, the fields will thin out and it will be a
little easier to sneak into events. But there are bills to be
paid in the meantime. The purse at the Inland Empire Open was
$200,000 (Jim Estes pocketed $36,000 with his victory), and,
says Paul Stankowski (133rd), "The money here's the same color
as what they're givin' out at Doral."
Yes, but they gave out a heck of a lot more--$1.8 million,
including $324,000 to the winner--at Doral.
To be an alternate is to be a professional optimist, and it is
dreams of monster paydays that keep alternates hanging around
the Tour by their fingernails. Listen to Stankowski. "If I'm
settled in at a Nike event, there's no way I would leave for a
Tour event after Monday. The dashing back and forth will drive
you nuts." A few moments later: "Tuesday morning, maybe, but it
would have to be an exceptional situation." A few moments later:
"Well, you know, it all depends. If one of the top tournaments
called me on Wednesday, and I could get there, yeah, I'd go for
"Man, I'd hitchhike there if I had to."