The democratic, yet cruel life of trying to make the PGA Tour

By Gary D'Amato
Published on
The democratic, yet cruel life of trying to make the PGA Tour

Golf is among the most democratic of all sports. There are no judges or referees to miss a call, no teammates to lean on or blame. There is no clock to expire and end your comeback, no opponent to tackle you or block your shot.

At every level, from the peewees to the pros, your score reveals exactly where you stand, whether you miss or make a cut, whether you finish 50th or first.

The game, then, is eminently fair.

That doesn't mean it isn't cruel.

Take, for example, Mike Van Sickle and Jordan Niebrugge, the most talented golfers with Wisconsin ties since Mark Wilson broke through in the 1990s.

Neither of them has yet made it to the PGA Tour, though their resumes are thick with accomplishment and their swings as sweet as anything you'll see on the practice tee at Augusta National in April.

Their only downfall is bad timing.

They've played their best golf, mainly, in the minor leagues, in backwater mini-tours and state opens. But a golfer can win 20 two-day events and every state open from Nebraska to New Hampshire every year and never sniff the PGA Tour.

The only way in, for nearly everyone not named Tiger Woods, is to survive a grueling qualifying process to get to the Tour and then play well enough there to earn a coveted PGA Tour card.

Van Sickle had another close call Sunday. The former Marquette University all-American tied for 85th place in the final stage of Tour qualifying, after advancing through the first two stages.

Unfortunately, only the top 45 are guaranteed a set number of starts when the tour cranks up in 2018. Van Sickle earned conditional status, which sounds good but in reality means he won't get many, if any, starts.

This was his ninth attempt at qualifying and the third time he reached the final stage. He is married, has a son and is days away from turning 31.

"It's difficult, that's for sure," Van Sickle said. "To stay sane you have to continue to believe in yourself and have the support of others who believe in you. There are times you question whether you're doing the right thing or not."

He was in a good position after making birdies on nine of his last 14 holes en route to a second-round 65 and still had a chance to finish among the top 45 with a few holes left Sunday. But he three-putted from the fringe after nearly driving the green on a short par-4 and the wind went out of his sails.

"That was the egregious error," he said.

Anyone who has seen Van Sickle play would tell you he has the game to compete at the highest level. He won the Byron Nelson Award as the nation's outstanding senior at Marquette, played in the Palmer Cup (where he won a singles match, 8 and 7) and was a first-team all-American with the likes of Rickie Fowler, Billy Horschel and Kyle Stanley.

As a professional, he's won a fistful of state open titles and mini-tour events and played in the 2016 U.S. Open. But he hasn't been able to get through Q School.

"It's just a matter of putting it together the right week," he said. "Is the week when you have your best stuff Q School or is it a state open?"

The same goes for Mequon's Niebrugge, who starred at collegiate powerhouse Oklahoma State, won the 2013 U.S. Amateur Public Links title and finished in a tie for sixth at the 2015 British Open with major champions Danny Willett, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose.

This year, he was ninth on the McKenzie Tour-Canada money list and was exempt through the first stages of Tour qualifying. But he finished in a tie for 99th in the final stage despite a closing 67 and, like Van Sickle, will have conditional status.

Niebrugge qualified for the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills and made the cut. He's unquestionably good enough to make a living on the PGA Tour. But first he has to get there.

Van Sickle, who lives outside Pittsburgh, said he would try to get into and PGA Tour events via brutally difficult Monday qualifiers in 2018 and fill out his schedule by competing wherever he can, whenever he can.

"I have talent and I work hard," he said. "It's just really hard to look in the mirror and say I'm not good enough. The belief I have in myself, if I just had status somewhere I'd be out there making cuts pretty much every week.

"But I don't want to sound like I'm complaining about not getting opportunities. Golf is such a democratic game. There's no politics in the actual game of golf. You've got to shoot a number. Nothing more than that."