As always, Q-School provided some of the most compelling human interest stories of the year. Unfortunately, these are stories we may never see again.
There was Erik Compton, a player who, by all rights, shouldn’t be alive, vying for medalist honors late in the final round. It was only four short years ago that Compton was face down in a hospital, breathless, nauseous and certain that this was the way his father would see him die. But a second heart came through in the nick of time, and now the two-time transplant recipient is back for a second consecutive year on the PGA Tour, earning his card with a stellar 67 in Monday’s final round.
And there was Robert Karlsson, last seen withdrawing from the Open Championship because he had “bad habits in my game.” What no one knew at the time was that Karlsson had Steve Blass Disease, a psychological disorder where the subject suddenly cannot make repetitive motions that were once routine.
Blass, a former baseball pitcher and now Pittsburgh Pirates broadcast announcer for whom the syndrome is named, inexplicably lost his ability to throw a baseball. Chuck Knoblauch got it. So did Mark Wohlers. But few knew that Karlsson lost the ability to start his golf swing. He would stand over a shot, go through all the motions he had repeated effortlessly for years, and then freeze, unable to pull the trigger.
But there he was, overcoming what could have been a career-ending disorder (and a mid-tournament 75) to finish with rounds of 68-70, tied for 14th and secure for another season.
“I learned a lot,” the Swede said afterward. “Not to take golf for granted, that's for sure. Now it seems like a bonus that I can play. I am very happy.”
Chez Reavie was another great story. One year removed from making it to the Tour Championship, Reavie was playing for his livelihood in the final round. A closing 70 put him through right on the number. The sense of relief was palpable.
On the unhappy side, there was Camilo Villegas, three-time PGA Tour winner who once reached No.7 in the World Golf Rankings, the highest ever for a South American. Two years removed from being a rock star – one of the men used in the ad campaign by the PGA Tour - Villegas shot 72-73-69 in the final three rounds and failed to regain his card.
Three-time winner Heath Slocum also failed to make it back to the show, pulling his tee shot into the water on the final hole to finish just two shots back. Paul Stankowski, Alex Cejka, Len Mattaice, and former PGA Champion Shaun Micheel also went home with their hearts broken.
Top-ranked amateur Patrick Cantlay didn’t shot in the 60s until the final round. By then it was too late. He finished tied for 95th, miles away from status, a jolt that will either build character and make him better or set him back for years to come.
The most agonizing heartbreak, however, belonged to Augusta native and former U.S. Ryder Cup player Vaughn Taylor, who was tied for second going into the weekend. Disastrous closing rounds of 73-74 left him three shots out of qualifying. He might as well have shot 100.
Another Augusta State golfer made it, though, and in the process made a little history. Henrik Norlander shot 68-67 in the final two rounds to qualify on the number. A veteran of the eGolf Tour, Norlander was one of only three players to advance this year without a single PGA Tour start.
That will never happen again.
Q-School as we have known it for years is no more. The primary path to the Big League from this point forward will be the Web.com Tour. With the move, players will have a year to prove themselves and hone their games. They won’t be at the mercy of a single week where something as random as a stomach bug can crater a career.
But for the purist, nothing will ever replace the raw, emotional drama of the final days of Q-School, the hottest furnace our game has ever produced.
“We’ve spent a lot time, done a lot of research and gotten a lot of opinions, and we’re confident that this is the correct approach,” PGA Tour Executive Vice President Ty Votaw told me a few months ago. “I know some people are going to say, ‘oh, you shouldn’t do away with Q-School.’ All I would say to that is give the new system a chance. I think you’ll be surprised.”
Surprised, perhaps, but not enthralled, not captivated, not invested. Only a pressure-cooker like Q-School can elicit emotions like that.