The Enduring Nostalgia of Q School

Golfers of a certain age tend to fetishize the old days of metal spikes, persimmon drivers and bourbon hangovers – you know, before the kids showed up with their damned soft spikes, sweet spots and kale smoothies. And among this “get off my lawn” generation, elegies for Q-School are a familiar lament.

For almost 50 years, the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament was the coliseum for Sansabelt soldiers, where battle-scarred veterans and fresh-faced rookies fought it out over six days to earn their stripes. For every career launched at Q-School, many others crashed to earth. Stories from that make-or-break week are plentiful and almost always painful. Like Steve Haskins, a journeyman who entered the arena 14 times but never made it out with a Tour card.

Even those who survived the gauntlet have scar tissue. It’s been 35 years since Brad Faxon’s only trip to Q-School, but he can recall it with forensic detail still. Fall 1983, TPC Sawgrass, 108 holes with a cut after 72.

“I shot 71 in the fourth round to move way up,” Faxon said. “Then rain and lightning came and they cancelled everybody’s scores. Next day I shot 76 and went from the top 10 to, like, 50th place.” He narrowly made the cut and secured a card that he kept for almost three decades.

That week he played with Paul Azinger, his current Fox Sports colleague.

“Paul made quad on 17 and missed his card,” Faxon said. “He missed the green short and right.”

Q-School had a way of rendering indelible another man’s trauma.

A year later, Azinger was Q-School medalist.

“When I got through I went straight to the top tour in the world,” he said. “Now they must take a different path to the Tour. I liked the old way better, but it doesn’t change the goal.”

It’s been six years since Q-School was mothballed, leaving a good season on the Tour as the only pathway to a PGA Tour card for most. Last week, Golfweek reported that the PGA Tour is creating a pipeline to offer top college players status on one of the circuits under its umbrella. That would acknowledge that the best college golfers are ready to compete on the PGA Tour right out of school. It would also be a tacit admission that it isn’t entirely fair to condemn capable talent to a year (at least) in the minor leagues.

Not every veteran is nostalgic for the Hail Mary shot offered by Q-School.

“The argument is we took away access,” Paul Goydos said. “That’s true and not true. The first year there wasn’t going to be a Q-School there was a player who started the year with zero status on any Tour and he made the Presidents Cup team!”

He’s referring to Jordan Spieth, who rode sponsor exemptions and exceptional play to secure his status. Jon Rahm did the same two years ago, becoming only the ninth player in Tour history to earn a card right out of college without going to Q-School.

“I understand it’s a high bar – Jordan Spieth – but the opportunity to go from college to the PGA Tour is there,” Goydos said. “But just for the best possible players. We’re arguing about the fringe. There’s no system that’s going to be perfect for a journeyman.”

Discontinuing Q-School was a purely commercial decision intended to preserve the viability of the Tour. It was a defensible call by Tour HQ, but that doesn’t mean something wasn’t lost along the way when reams of data replaced 108 holes of drama.

“They came up with evidence that people who got their cards after playing a year on the did better keeping their cards than those who went through a one-time shot at Q-School,” Faxon said. “But it ended Cinderella stories.”

Cinderella Spieth is the only fairy tale Goydos believes in – a parable for how sublime talent will always make it to the Tour. He’s convinced the Tour is a better route for mortal rookies.

“Just because you were the best player in college doesn’t mean you have any right to play professional golf. Go and beat the guys who are already playing professional golf. You have opportunity, go out and show what you’ve got,” he said. “If you can’t get through a Monday qualifier on the, I don’t think you can complain about not getting a shot at the PGA Tour.”, December 9, 2018.

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