THE SKY'S THE LIMIT IN HAWAII, THE TOUR'S LEAST-KNOWN PLAYERS HAD A CHANCE TO BECOME THE BIG KAHUNA

February 24, 1997

Eric Johnson glances up as the sun, low in the fluorescent blue
sky, begins to sink behind the Waialae Country Club golf shop.
"If you're going to play bad," he says after his 80 in the
second round, "I guess it's better to do it in Hawaii than in
Paducah--nothing against Paducah." Johnson, a tall 34-year-old
from Eugene, Ore., is a rookie on the PGA Tour, and like all the
other first-year players who missed the cut at the United
Airlines Hawaiian Open, he's accustomed to packing up his dreams
and looking for the next chance to make them come true. For
those who've been on the Tour for a while, missing the cut in a
place like Honolulu is nothing to get excited about. But one
man's nice little tournament is another's major championship,
and while the Hawaiian Open is a blip on the big screen of the
Tour, to the rookies and qualifying-school graduates fighting
for their careers, a week at windy Waialae is the opportunity of
a lifetime.

We've all heard how tough it is to survive the Tour's qualifying
tournament, better known as Q school. But there's something just
as tough, if not tougher--making the jump from Q school, where
more than 1,000 players are chopped to the low 40 and ties, to
the top 125 on the money list, and exempt status, on Tour. "At Q
school it seems like life or death, and you'd give your arms to
make it," says Robert Damron, 24, a rookie who grew up next to
the 10th green at the Bay Hill Club in Orlando. "Once you've
made it, you start right over at ground zero. You're nobody,
nothing. All you have is an opportunity." The odds are
intimidating. At every tournament there are more players than
spots in the field. Figure it this way: Take the elite 125 plus
eight players with sponsor exemptions, two club pros from the
local PGA section and four Monday qualifiers, then add the
top-10 finishers from the Nike tour and 49 Q schoolers and
you're already up to 198 golfers. A typical field is 156 players
or less.

Who gets in when there are too many entries? At the bottom of
the pecking order is a pool made up of the Q schoolers, who are
ranked by their finish at the qualifying tournament, and the
second five from the Nike tour. Naturally, the most common
question among this pool is, "What's your number, man?"

As the final qualifier out of Q school, Paul Claxton's number is
54. He finished in a 13-man tie for 37th in Lompoc, Calif., but
because he shot the highest score in the final round, a 79, he
was relegated to the last spot. The second five Nike qualifiers,
who are always spotted in among the top 15 Q-school grads,
pushed him from 49th to 54th. But Claxton, a native of Vidalia,
Ga., got into the Hawaiian Open--his first start of the
year--and made the most of it, earning a $3,432 check for
finishing 45th. That's a far cry from the $216,000 Paul
Stankowski took home for beating defending champion Jim Furyk on
the fourth hole of sudden death, but making any money is
meaningful. "At least I'm going to climb out of this hole I'm
in," Claxton says.

It's hard not to feel the pressure, knowing that opportunities
are limited. Only eight Q schoolers made it into the Phoenix
Open, and the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic had room for just 14.
The last three events have had more openings. Forty-three grads
helped fill the massive 180-man field in the AT&T Pebble Beach
National Pro-Am, and 37 played in the Buick Invitational the
next week in La Jolla, Calif. Forty-five started in Hawaii, and
the four who weren't there could have played had they chosen to
show up.

After next week's Nissan Open in Pacific Palisades, Calif., the
Q schoolers will be re-ranked--the Tour calls it the
reshuffle--based on their winnings. Reshuffles occur every eight
to 10 weeks, so it's imperative to play well early, especially
for the guys near the bottom of the list, like Claxton, who get
few opportunities. "Hawaii is the only event some guys can play
on the West Coast," says Skip Kendall, a former Q school
medalist on his third try at the big Tour. "It's important to
play good early coming out of the qualifying school, otherwise
you don't get in many tournaments. As a rookie you have so many
things going against you. Your tee times are in the last groups.
You don't know the courses. You don't get practice rounds on
Wednesdays because of the pro-am and sometimes not on Mondays
either because of the Monday pro-am. You really pay your dues."

Johnson's dues have been prepaid. He bombed out of Q school six
times--he first tried in 1983--before finally getting a pass to
the big show this year via the Nike tour. Everything he has done
in the past few years is part of a remarkable comeback. "I'm a
recovering alcoholic," Johnson says. "It probably doesn't say so
in the Tour's press guide, but that's O.K. I hung up golf for
six years to see if I could live without drinking. It got to the
point where I couldn't really play golf without drinking, and
when I quit drinking, I couldn't play golf. I had to get my life
in order first."

Sometime during those six years off, in the late '80s, between
city-league softball games and salmon and steelhead fishing,
Johnson began to think about competitive golf again. He gave the
Hooters tour a try and won twice; he was the leading money
winner in 1991. "That told me I could play again," he says. Last
year was also a good one. Not only did Johnson win a tournament
in Knoxville, Tenn., and finish 10th on the Nike money list, he
says he also landed the biggest bass ever caught in Georgia.
This year Johnson is 0 for 3 on the Tour and discouraged that he
hasn't been able to take his A game from the practice range to
the course. But he has two more events before the reshuffle. "I
don't feel a sense of urgency yet," Johnson says. "If I keep
playing like I am, though, I might start."

Like Claxton, Brad Sutterfield, a former BYU player who spent
two years as a missionary in South Korea, was making his '97
debut in Hawaii. "I knew there would be tournaments I couldn't
get in," he says, "but I didn't think the first five events
would go by before I got to play. My friends back home were
saying during the AT&T, 'Why aren't you at Pebble Beach?' I
said, 'I can't get in.' They said, 'What do you mean? You've got
your Tour card, don't you?'"

Sutterfield had gone to Pebble Beach as the second alternate,
and on Thursday he waited in vain at the practice range with his
wife, Tanya, who caddies for him. At Waialae, his first stroke
on Tour was a smother-hooked tee shot. Although he saved par, he
missed the cut. Still, it beats life on the Asian and Canadian
tours, Sutterfield's most recent stops. "It's like going from a
Chevy Cavalier to a Mercedes," he says.

For Q schoolers, hope springs weekly. One good finish and you're
on your way to the top 125. That's what has already happened to
Donnie Hammond. A Tour veteran who was forced to return to Q
school last fall, Hammond tied for fourth in Hawaii, earning
$52,800. Already he has won $130,907 this year, and is 12th on
the money list. Another $30,000 or so and he'll have made it.

In all, 16 Q school players made the cut last week. After
Hammond, Stuart Appleby, who tied for ninth and won $31,200,
finished highest. Five rookies--Doug Barron (tie for 19th,
$13,050), Brent Geiberger (19th, $13,050), Anthony Rodriguez
(31st, $6,805), Todd Demsey (51st, $2,841) and Claxton--played
on the weekend.

Although he missed the cut in Hawaii, Damron, the rookie from
Orlando, has won more than $27,000 this season. He got an assist
from Arnold Palmer, who provided a club-and-bag deal with his
equipment company and helped secure a sponsor's exemption for
him in the Hope, where he finished 20th and won $16,860. "I
wasn't expecting to get in," says Damron, who played the
Canadian tour last year. "I was playing behind Mr. Palmer at Bay
Hill before the Hope, and on the 3rd hole I pulled the pin out
and found a note in the cup. It said, 'Robert, you're in the
Hope.' They had called him on his cellular phone. That was
pretty neat."

Not as neat as his week in Palm Springs. Damron shot 67 in the
first round, the same day Palmer was preparing for surgery for
prostate cancer at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "The next
day I came off the 18th hole at Indian Ridge, and the head pro
gave me a fax," Damron says. "It was from Mr. Palmer, saying,
'Nice round, good luck.' You wouldn't think he'd care, but he
does. I've still got that fax. I'm going to have it framed."

Barron, a fast-talking rookie from Memphis, has also gotten off
to a good start, making five cuts in six tournaments and winning
$28,725. Barron played 48 holes at Waialae before he made his
first bogey. His 1997 highlights include a practice round with
Tom Kite and a Sunday pairing at the Hope with Fred Couples and
Craig Stadler. "With Fred, we must've had four or five thousand
people following us and going crazy," Barron says. "I said, 'Now
I see why you don't want to be the Number 1 player in the
world.' He said, 'Yeah, it was fun--for about a day.'"

Spike McRoy of Huntsville, Ala., has had perfect attendance so
far, sort of. He has been at every West Coast tournament hoping
to either get in off his number, 48, or play his way in through
Monday qualifying. When he shot three-under 69 in Phoenix and
still missed by three strokes, he swore off Mondays. "That was
it," he says. "If I don't get in, I don't get in." McRoy's year
got off to a great start when a car dealer he had met at
breakfast in Huntsville came back at lunch to surprise him with
the keys to a Jeep Cherokee. "He says, 'Here, call me in a
couple of weeks and let me know how it's going,'" says McRoy,
who played on the Hooters tour the last four years. "Awesome."

Things haven't been as awesome since. He missed the cut at
Pebble Beach. At Waialae he birdied his 36th hole to get to
three-under and thought he'd made the cut, but two other late
finishers also made birdies. The cut went to four under.

"I don't have my foot in the door," says McRoy, "just a toe."
Then he looked up at the beautiful Hawaiian sky, took a deep
breath and went off to give his caddie the bad news.

FOUR COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Forty-five Q school grads, only 16 of whom made the cut, were among the no-names seeking gold at the end of Waialae's rainbow. [Rainbow in sky above palm trees; hand-held scoreboard; man holding scoreboard; two woman with scoreboard] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Claxton (right) might get lost in the reshuffle, but a powerful friend likes Damron's style.[Paul Claxton; Robert Damron] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Johnson took a six-year sabbatical from golf when he realized he couldn't play sober. [Eric Johnson]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)