Eubanks: Q-School's Last Hurrah

By Steve Eubanks
Published on

Things change. They always have.

Since the dawn of creation, land masses have shifted, organisms have evolved, nations have risen and fallen, institutions have come and gone, and people have scraped and clawed their way out of the muck, being tempered and forged by constant, spectacular, violent, and often rapid upheaval. From tectonic plates pushing and shoving to form the Andes and Himalayas, to meteors wiping out dinosaurs, to revolutions changing the political landscape of the world, change is the one constant throughout all of history.

Games are not immune, much to the consternation of purists, many of whom slouch in chairs and prattle on about how wonderful things used to be.

There’s baseball, where winning a divisional pennant was once the only way to get to the League Championship Series; and football, where, in the old days, the words “upon further review” would have never come out of an official’s mouth; and basketball, where taking two steps without a dribble was once a turnover that would draw a whistle every time.

Now there is golf.

This week marks the beginning of the end of one of the most pressure-packed and gut-wrenching events ever conceived for our game. The first round of Q-School kicked off for the final time on Tuesday with players chasing their dreams in places like Lantana, Texas; Kannapolis, N.C.; and Palm Desert, Calif. There are 14 venues for Stage One, some starting this week and others next. That will be whittled down to six courses sprinkled hither and yon for Stage Two, followed by a grueling six-round, 108-hole Final Stage at PGA West in early December.

After that, the whole thing vanishes. Q-School, the most pressure-packed tournament in golf, will be no more.

It’s going away because of money. The Tour, which will be the new avenue for advancing to the PGA Tour, generates more sponsor income and has a more lucrative television contract than the one-week Final Stage of Q-School, which has been televised on the Golf Channel since 1996.

But there is no way to replace the drama. Since 1965, pros have hung their livelihoods on this one grueling event. And golf fans have been unable to look away.

In the second stage of the 1997 Q-School at Kiva Dunes, a Jerry Pate-designed links-style course in Gulf Shores, Ala., I watched a player stare down an eight-foot alligator before wading into a black-water hazard to play a shot. At the time I remember thinking that he could lose a foot or maybe a leg, but obviously the risk was worth it. One shot could prove to be the difference between playing golf or selling cars for a living. If taking on an alligator was part of the deal, so be it.

Stories like that one abound.

Steve Stricker was a three-time PGA Tour winner and runner-up finisher in the 1998 PGA Championship when he failed to make it through the Final Stage of the 2005 Q-School. Stricker got a sponsor’s exemption to the Houston Open and finished third. Then he tied for sixth in the U.S. Open and won Comeback Player of the Year honors. More importantly, he avoided Q-School.

"I hope I never have to go again," Stricker said.

And while everyone remembers Jay Haas watching his son Bill play the shot of the year from the water at East Lake to win the 2011 FedExCup, almost no one saw Jay chew his lip as Bill stood over a four-foot birdie putt in 2005 at PGA West that would either earn him a tour card if he made it, or relegate him to another year of minor league golf and sponsor exemptions if he missed.

Many more people have seen Joe Daley’s putt in the Final Stage -- a two-footer that hit the back of the hole, disappeared, and then popped out as if the cup had regurgitated an undigested chunk of meat -- than saw Joe win the Senior Players Championship this year.

"I rolled that putt so good," Joe said of the shot that cost him a place on tour. "I wish I could roll every putt I ever had that good. But that was way back in 2000. That’s ancient history."

After this year, it will all be ancient history. And that is a shame.

Without Q-School, we would not have been treated to such characters as Mac O'Grady, who went through it 17 times before finally qualifying and who played tour events both left- and right-handed; or Larry Nelson, who didn’t pick up a golf club until he was 21 years old and learned the game by reading Ben Hogan's "Five Lessons: the Modern Fundamentals of Golf." 

Without Q-School, we would not have had the serious discussion about age in our game prompted by Ty Tryon earning his card in 2001 at age 17. And we would likely have never heard of guys like Paul Goydos or Andrew Magee.

In the introduction to his bestselling book, "Tales from Q School: Inside Golf’s Fifth Major," John Feinstein wrote: "Q School should continue to be part of the PGA Tour. As heartbreaking as it can be, it also produces the most unlikely and uplifting stories one is likely to encounter anywhere in golf. Ask anyone who has watched the last round of a major championship up close and the last round of Q School up close which one has more human drama, and the answer will always be the same: Q School."

Unfortunately, that drama will soon be a thing of the past.

All things change, but many times it’s not for the better. The end of Q-School is one of those times.

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