Smith's tale of success and struggle shows both sides of Q-School issue

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Neale Smith knows first-hand that there can be a big difference between short-term success at Q-School and enduring success on the PGA Tour.
By
Doug Ferguson
Associated Press

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Published: Monday, April 04, 2011 | 11:48 p.m.

The PGA Tour is contemplating the radical change of handing out only Nationwide Tour cards at Q-School, in part to make sure promising young players are properly prepared for the big leagues.

Neale Smith can understand that thinking better than most.

Smith, an Australian living in Southern California, works as a mental coach for the likes of Hunter Mahan and Jason Day and as a swing coach for other players. In a previous life, he was one of the biggest surprises to make it through Q-School.

As a graduate assistant at Cal State-Fullerton, he taught golf among other activities. When he finished his master’s degree, Smith was good enough to break par and idealistic enough to chase his dream. An exceptional athlete -- he competed at the 1984 Olympic trials in the high jump until getting injured -- Smith dabbled in a couple of mini-tour event before trying Q-School.

He barely made it through the first two stages, and it all came together in the final stage at the TPC Woodlands, where he shared medalist honors with Brett Ogle, Skip Kendall, Massy Kuramoto and Percy Moss. Before he knew it, he was a PGA Tour member.

“I seriously thought I was going to be up there for 20 years,” Smith said. “But I had so little experience in tournament golf.”

He laughs now at his routine. Smith said he would stretch and work out for two hours, then go through a regular warmup on the range and play his round. He would be the last one on the range that night. He also fiddled with new equipment.

“If there are eight rookie errors, I made at least six of them,” he said. “All the stupid stuff you shouldn’t do, I did it. And it’s a huge gap from Q-School success to success on tour.”

That much was obvious by his results. He made only six cuts in 22 tournaments in 1993. His best finish was his last tournament of the year, a tie for 64th in the Texas Open. He wound up making $11,413 and was 234th on the money list.

He never made it back.

Smith’s amazing rags-to-riches tale got enough attention to earn sponsor exemptions in Australia, and he spent the next several years playing the Canadian Tour. He tried Q-School eight more times without getting through.

“One of my only regrets is that after being a touring pro for four or five years, I didn’t get another shot,” he said. “I was more prepared. I really knew what I was doing. There were so many other things I didn’t know how to do after I got my card. I learned over time. If I had ever gotten through Q-School again, I would have had a much more legitimate chance.”

The tour’s proposal is for PGA Tour players who failed to finish in the top 125 to compete in a three-event “playoff” with top Nationwide Tour players to determine who gets PGA cards the next year. The only cards available at Q-School would be for the Nationwide Tour.

The concern is losing out on stories like Smith.

“It takes some of the romanticism out of Q-School. Some of the stories seem compelling,” Smith said. “But I also think the Nationwide Tour is a much fairer test to see if you can survive. Some guys can get up there, but they’re not good enough to stay up there.”