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Chapter 1: Play Scratch, Feel the Itch
I could not have known it at the time, but the dramatic heart of this book began beating on the first tee of the Woodland Golf Club during opening round play of the 1973 Massachusetts Open. Banners hung from the old club's iron gates and two tone Coupe de Villes idled on the entrance road as our 12:48 P.m. group commenced play. Two balls rested far down the fairway, waiting for a third contestant, the blond, blocky club pro who was my boss and my sometime hero, to hit his drive.
Beside me in the shade stood his green and white staff bag, which carried a set of MacGregor MTs and the name "Mike Smith" in a hopeful flourish of black script. Having already gone 18 holes in the third pairing of the morning (I caddied for an amateur who had shot 73), my legs and feet tingled with fatigue. The starter, who had announced my amateur's name six hours earlier and was still manning his post, sounded a bit weary himself.
But Mike was brimming with energy. Fidgeting, you might even say. I watched him crunch his shoulder blades together and sweep a few ribbons of hair across his forehead, where pebbles of perspiration had recently emerged. Jitterbugging between the tee markers, he squinted at the fairway and the treelines pinching it. His small but ape strong hands traveled along the club handle, trying to agree on a grip. He tugged at his glove and hitched up his sans a belt waistband, reestablishing that wavy border between a bulge of belly and his narrow, quick turning hips. Many times had I witnessed this routine, including Mike's familiar preround benedictions: "Tee it high and fly," "Stick it in the ground and go," and so on, which today came out more in a croak than in his singsong rendition of a Rhode Island working class accent.
My elders on the tee didn't know Mike Smith, but they knew about tournament golf. I had the case covered a different waydidn't know the game too well but I did know Mike. Which is how all of us simultaneously realized the guy was choking. Gagging uncontrollably. Constricted in the throat and in every other bodily orifice. Once I grasped what was happening, anxiety skipped from him to me like a flamelick in dry woods.
Examining my shoelaces, I steeled myself for an out and out whiff. Rejecting that possibility, I pictured the coldest of cold tops, a "hey boss look at me" company outing special.
There were a few final spasms of Mike's false nonchalance, then he coiled back. His downswing was slashy and quick, and then came impact. About six dimples' worth, I estimated, occurring along that bony ridge where a persimmon driver's neck and soleplate meet.
The ball sizzled audibly. I pictured its cover carved open like a heavyweight's eyebrow. The shot tracked low and left, exploring the woods like a finch. Once it passed the first small grove a copse of trees that could have pinballed it for a few loud thwocks then burped it back onto the forward tee the torn ball found a sliver of daylight. As golf shots go, I remember thinking, this one was more exciting to watch than any high, booming drive would have been. It battled the evil forces of sidespin and topspin for 80 or 90 yards then finally succumbed. Though it had taken a fairly deep angle into the trees, this patch of woods must have been recently thinned, allowing the ball to skip crazily forward after it touched down. The terrain of the woods sloped upland from the fairway's edge, creating a valley effect that sent the ball trickling back toward safety. It came to rest 130 yards away, in a little clearing from which a reasonable recovery shot could be played.
Grim disaster had somehow been avoided. All parties to the incident, with the exception of the starter, legged it off the first tee like johns fleeing a raided brothel. By the time Mike retrieved his driver's headcover he had by some miracle gotten his wits about him, as well. Soon he was conversing with himself in full tenor, and I let myself believe that a scrambling 74 might be possible.
Twenty five years later, I don't remember exactly what Mike shot. Closer to 80 than 70, certainly. What mattered is that I had finally seen him up close in a real tournament, and thus understood that his game was nothing special, to say the least. Mike was 34 years old at the time and I was 16. We had met the prior October when he was hired as head pro at Needham Golf Club, a nine holer where my younger brother, Peter, and I were caddies. That fall, Mike chose me from among the "A" caddies to be his bag room attendant and caddie master for the upcoming summer, a favor for which I was then and still am eternally grateful. Our previous pro was Mr. Burke, a tall, tanned, smooth featured gentleman who had given up golf for full time whiskey drinking. In three years of caddying at the club, I had seen the man play perhaps one round. Our new pro, as the officers on the search committee promised, was destined to be a great improvement, due to his youth and modem training and his downright respectable behavior. "Respectable" meaning he did most of his drinking after the golf shop was closed.
Given what we had heard of his professional skills, it was hard to imagine that Mike had worked at four or five clubs without ever being offered a head pro position. The members at his most recent place of employment claimed he could reshaft, regrip, and rejigger the swingweight of a persimmon driver on an hour's notice. They said he could teach all day in the hot sun with skill and patience. Given his keen eye for merchandise, they predicted the Needham shop would soon be a colorful showcase of the latest gear. His tournaments would run like clockwork, they said, right down to the scoresheets he hand lettered so swiftly and artfully. Mike knew the rules of our royal and ancient game, inside and out. He was a storyteller, he was an early riser and a hard worker, and he was more than happy to fill out a Saturday foursome of members, even the high handicappers.
The Needham membership buzzed with anticipation. Their pro shop, which had become a wax museum, was about to be transformed. Extolling the virtues of this incoming firebrand became the only form of conversation allowed. "And he's a heckuva player, too," was how the members' speeches generally concluded. "Got a super swing." If a question then arose as to Mike's lack of tournament victories, a postscript would be added: "Guess he's been struggling with the putter the last couple of years," the members would note. "Yeah, putter is what's killin' him."
When you're 15 and living in a golf backwater like Needham, Massachusetts, you think anybody who can break par on an average course is mere steps away from stardom. I signed on not only as Mike's bag room attendant but as his personal rooting section for the golfing comeback this great new job would allow him to mount. First off, he would need me and the rest of the staff to help get the golf program organized. Once things were running smoothly, he could buckle down to work on his game. Of course "comeback" may not have been the appropriate term, since Mike's raw talent had never been harnessed to produce those telltale high finishes in the New England PGA section's important tournaments. Or even in recent Monday pro ams, for that matter.
But the man had played great golf in his time. Lately, however, it had all come at those odd hours when an overworked assistant pro might seize the chance. Mike would wait for the long evenings of summer, he explained to me, after club parking lots emptied and the shop doors were locked, to race through his unwitnessed rounds of 66, 67, 68. That had been his only serious playing time for the past several years, he explained, but now things would be different.
Somehow, the great comeback never did materialize. The drinking was mostly confined to after hours, but it hampered his progress all the same. And the shop staff responsible for getting things organized turned out to include one longtime crony of Mike's who did all his heavy lifting from the till. Some kind of cyst or spur cropped up at the base of Mike's thumb, an ailment the doctors couldn't seem to repair or even conclusively diagnose. In keeping with his reputation, Mike taught all day on our makeshift range and had no energy left to practice. I caddied for him the following summer when he and our greenkeeper teamed up to win a New England PGA Pro Superintendent title, but that was all the fame and glory we could muster.
During that first summer, when my nalve rooting and his powers of self deception produced their symbiotic revelries, I would ask him about his early career, his flashes of raw potential, his moments when it seemed destiny was beckoning him toward the big time. He would oblige me with a tournament golfer's standard narrative the tips he had received from area pros whose names I recognized, the little grip.changes and swing changes that had fine tuned his ball flight and added distance or control. Putting, that prissy detail of the game that had proved such a nuisance even to greats like Hogan and Palmer, would come in for its few words of scorn, along with fresh words of resolve. There was a seriousness in all these explanations that convinced me Mike's playing goals which in hindsight were wildly modest compared to the prospects I harbored for him would one day be reached.
He would head off on Mondays to play in section tournaments and Tuesday's paper would list the top scores, none of which happened to be his. Then came the week of the Mass Open, and after that we spoke less and less about the comeback. When we did talk about his playing career, I noticed a bitter realism starting to creep into the conversation. Finally he related an incident that relieved me of my ignorance.
One of Mike's prior bosses had been Paul Harney, perhaps the finest tournament golfer New England has produced since the days of the great amateur (and 1913 U.S. Open champion) Francis Ouimet. Harney, who won seven PGA Tour events in his career, won three of those while engaged as the working head professional at Pleasant Valley Country Club in Sutton, Massachusetts, during the 1960s and early 1970s. Mike Smith, like the typical Harney assistant, was inspired to the point of awe by a man who could succeed wildly in both pro golf arenas at once. Mike dedicat6d himself to seeing how good he could possibly be at the game Harney made look easy. The golf course, Pleasant Valley, was a PGA Tour stop, and thus a fitting test of any pro's potential. Mike would hit balls in the morning or at lunch, close the shop at dinnertime, and roar out onto the golf course. He had always been a hard swinger, but now he was adding finesse to his power game. The more he played it, the more this championship layout yielded low scores to him. He strode in one night after covering Pleasant Valley in another tidy 67. Unexpectedly, Harney was still on the premises. Mike knocked the grass clippings from his spikes and swaggered into the shop.
"I've made a decision I need to tell you about," Mike said to the boss. Then he drew in his breath. "Mr. Harney, I'm goin' on the tour."
Noticing the effect his long abandoned declaration was having upon me, Mike paused for emphasis.
"Harney just looked at me," Mike recounted, "then he said, 'Son ... you're not goin' anywhere."'
And Paul Harney didn't mean, "Gosh, Mike, you're too valuable an employee I need you around here." He meant, "You can't beat anybody, kid, so don't waste your time dreaming."
For all of Mike's tendencies toward self delusion, his tone as he replayed Harney's words that day was one of door slamming authority. An hour later, walking the mile of railroad track between the golf club and my house, I imagined that the great pro's reply must have stung Mike at first, and then eventually liberated him. That's when I realized that in Mike's mind, the competitive comeback his new job was going to spark would never ticket him for a return to Pleasant Valley and a stab at "Monday qualifying" for the Classic. His playing ambitions had to have been confined to respectable finishes in the Mass Opens and Rhode Island Opens and maybe the fall Cape Cod Pro Am Series. Never would they approach the great, gaudy PGA Tour, as I had let myself imagine.
I remember feeling relieved that I hadn't made a big deal about my belief in Mike's playing ability to anyone, not even to my brother, Pete. At the same time, I felt disgusted with the game of golf, with its absurd randomness. So many players with classy swings and a passion to compete, and try as you might to discern superiority, you could go to your grave not knowing why one succeeded and the next one stood no chance.
Less than a decade later, I found myself legging it around professional tournaments with a set of pairing sheets and a notepad in my hand. The game's eternal riddle why certain players were destined for stardom and certain others bound for obscurity had worked its way into a vocation. By no means did I solve any mysteries right away, nor have I developed an eagle eye for budding greatness in the dozen years since. Unpredictability is still the essence of top level tournament golf, and all the swing doctors, stat masters, and sports psychologists in the world can only shed a certain amount of light on it. At the 1997 PGA Tour "Q School" finals in central Florida, I met a philosophical tour caddie (I suppose that's a redundancy) named Bob Ming, aka "Cowboy." Bob made an obtuse observation about the challenge of tour qualifying that I still find oddly helpful.
"Tour school is the final exam, it's there waiting for you. And every year, the questions on the test are the same," said Cowboy. "Problem is, every year the answers are different."
Those ever changing answers to the big, simple question: "How good do you need to be?" are what make a Nike Tour event on the Golf Channel so disorienting. Watching these "developmental tour" events, an average fan asks, Haven't we seen a lot of these Nike Tour players competing on the PGA Tour? Aren't these Nike Tour players driving it as far as PGA Tour players do? Aren't they holing the six footers and missing the 12 footers, same as on the PGA Tour?
The lack of visible differences among the various levels is one reason so many of us confine our rooting to the very elite players. We don't know exactly why they're better, we just know we can stick with them and never seem ignorant. Football fans can follow the NFL draft safe in the belief that most of the players in the first couple of rounds will have successful careers, even if some quit due to injury and a few others simply don't pan out. Basketball fans who turn themselves into "NBA draftniks" during the annual selection pageant have the luxury of adopting just about any first rounder as their personal hero and knowing their guy will romp through the league for several seasons, anyway. The enormous no cut contracts of these incoming players virtually assures it, whether the player excels or not.
In golf, being named rookie of the year (Mark Carnevale, Woody Austin, and Robert Gamez have all won the award in the '90s; all three have returned to Q School since) is a dubious honor on the pro tour early success is usually fleeting. As fans and reporters, we wait for excellence to repeat itself over many campaigns before we adopt a player as one of our favorites. The media newspapers along with television try to skirt risk by fixating on the top 10 or 15 players, the superstars who dominate the major tournaments and get invited to all those easy money side events. Most of the audience, most of the time, will be content to hear about the front runners and turn a blind eye to the players who scuffle along. Whenever one of the scufflers goes on a tear in a big tournament, you can hear the media guidebooks crack open to the page containing his capsule bio.
I used to see the world from that angle myself, complaining inwardly about the unknowns and little knowns who cluttered the landscape while I was busy trying to watch Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, and Greg Norman. Now, after three years researching this book, I find myself paying more attention to marginal players than stars. Perhaps it's out of vestigial loyalty to my old boss, Mike, who lived hard and wound up dying young. The main reason, I suppose, is that I've come to appreciate that special inner architecture to the sport and society of golf, the web of joists and rafters that connects all the participants to each other in a six degrees of separation manner. There is a spontaneous kinship within golf, a summoning instinct. It works from the ground up and causes people like Eddie Lowery, Ouimet's schoolboy caddie, to grow up, move to California, and nurture the careers of Harvie Ward and Ken Venturi, who thrived under Lowery's patronage and have, in turn, adopted their own prot6g6s. This kinship is powerful, and yet when it reaches the top of the professional pyramid, where the corporate dollars and megadeals become exponential, it gives way to some other force.
Up at the pinnacle of success, a Nicklaus, Watson, or Norman these days a Tiger Woods or a David Duval can unlink from tribal golf society and turn into an orbiting golf planet unto himself. "It's not that Greg Norman isn't a nice guy by nature," tour veteran Peter Jacobsen once told me. "It's just this commercial machine that's been built around him, like some kind of wall. I saw Greg at a tournament a couple of weeks ago and he must have had eight business guys walking stride for stride with him. I waved, and he waved back, but I remember thinking to myself, 'Was that Greg Norman who just walked by or was that a multinational corporation?' "
Arnold Palmer is the biggest star this game ever produced, but Palmer never orbited out of reach of his galleries or the average golfer. In the first place, it wasn't in his nature. Secondly, at the time of Palmer's rise to stardom, the economics of the game were not as complex and turbocharged as they are now. And since Palmer is both the ultimate golf superstar and perhaps the last icon to keep that earthy, personal connection to the proletariat, it's worth noting that golf's universal denominator which is humility, the stark public experience of being humbled played an important role. Arnold Palmer won early and often, he won major championships, he was coronated golf's king, but he lost his championship form while still in his prime years and became completely eclipsed as a player by Nicklaus. Palmer's putting yips in general and his nightmarish fumbling of the 1966 U.S. Open, after that title was well in hand, cast him as human, fallible, and ever approachable.
Nicklaus, by contrast, never suffered a cathartic, humiliating defeat between the gallery ropes. Dry spells and missed opportunities, yes, but no naked failure. Meanwhile, he followed his ambition and pride into course design and club manufacturing, treating these sidelines as serious competitive arenas. Palmer was involved in similar enterprises, but always the opportunities came to him. Any venture that bore the Palmer name would be high quality Arnold insisted on that. But there was nothing dog eat-dog about the Arnold Palmer golf equipment company or his course design and course management outfits. If you really wanted to see Palmer's competitive fires bum, you had to watch him play golf tournaments.
As for Greg Norman, the supposedly humbling effect of defeat even catastrophic collapse, such as Norman endured at the 1996 Masters never seems to fully take hold. Norman's horse gets shot out from under him and he falls, but he doesn't hit the turf. Defeat is nominally accepted, but not its harsh implications. Instead, Norman dusts himself off, counts his blessings (after being overtaken by Faldo in 1996 at Augusta, he even publicly counted his money), and moves on. To the next business deal, the next tournament, the next appointment with his rightful destiny. Tiger Woods, who came to us prepackaged, is similar to Greg Norman separate from you and me. The current star system in golf makes it impossible for Woods to be an extension of the lineage that connects 20 handicappers to 10 handicappers, 10s to 5s, 5s to scratch players, scratch players to minitour pros, and so on up through Q School and the Nike Tour to the PGA Tour. That being the case, we look elsewhere for people to identify with. At least I do. When the giants battle it out in major championships, the show is still spectacular and it's still history in the making. But if you're used to feeling a subtle, personal identification with the people inside the ropes a distant, genealogical link then Palmer was surely the last superstar to whom that feeling extended.
Pro golf's overall unpredictability, that seemingly random selection process I once walked along the railroad tracks cursing, is actually a great unifier of everyone who plays the game, or even just follows it. As long as it's basically impossible, early on, to distinguish the can't miss player from the prohibitive long shot, then we're all entitled to spot future PGA Tour mainstays in our own backyards. Take any junior golf champion from any club in any town who shoots 69 68 to win by eight shots automatically this boy is Tour Material, at least to the folks around him. When tournament goers sit in the driving range grandstand watching PGA Tour pros practice, there are always a few who are picturing Billy Elwood or Jason Appleton or some other local phenom who could hit it longer and straighter than half the contestants on the tee. ("Jason ought to be out there," you almost hear them sigh.) It's both their burden and their natural right.
Then the next big tournament starts and one of the big names out duels a few other big names and, yes, a few lesser knowns along the way. The big name player's familiar face gets splashed on the magazine covers and he moves a few notches up the World Ranking. With the start up of the World Golf Championship tournaments, and other changes in the PGA Tour's structure, elite players are being separated from the rest of the population even more dramatically than before. The gap opening up between top tier pros and the rank and file naturally brings these professionals one peg closer to the real world, where the rest of us live. It connects us to the walk ons who bloomed a bit late and were coached by the local pro instead of David Leadbetter. When one of these scufflers can escape his purgatory and establish himself at the top professional level, it's a victory that feels straight out of the hometown newspaper. To paraphrase Bobby Jones's famous comment about Nicklaus, these mid level pros play a game with which we are familiar.
Meanwhile, they are scarcely any better at gauging or predicting their success than we are. As their careers progress and then stall, they struggle with the question of how good they'll need to be to achieve their next goal. They look ever inward to try and learn exactly how much ability they possess. And Q School, the annual PGA Tour feeder tournament, is their official spawning grounds. In recent years, the scuffling life in general has become a bit easier and Q School in particular has begun to seem less of a tour stepchild. The purse money it offers is actually worth battling for, and if you come up short of PGA Tour eligibility, the Buy.com Tour offers consolation and semigainful employment. But despite the safety net, veteran pros in their late 20s 0 and 30s often find tour qualifying to be a more harrowing, humbling ordeal than ever before. Players who have spent even one season on the big tour are shocked at how easily they accustomed themselves to its comforts and prestige. When they lose eligibility, it's the equivalent of having sinned and been kicked out of paradise.
"I missed getting a card at my first tour school in '87," explained Nolan Henke, winner of three tour events in the 1990s, "then I came back in '88 and requalified. Unfortunately, that year I finished out of the top 125 [Henke ranked 159th in earnings], so I had to go through it all again. Coming back to the school after a year on tour, I remember thinking how much easier earning a card had been that first time. The second time, you know what you're missing if you don't make it."
The PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, and this chronicle of it, is a view of pro golf from the bottom looking up. These stories celebrate the journeyman. They shed light on the working class heroism found in the lower end of the results sheet, where every Monday morning from January to October there is a 70 72 7471 $4,672 that matters a great deal to an individual player, his wife, his inner circle of two dozen family and friends and sponsors. After so many conversations with the obscure names listed beside those numbers, you begin to see the condo payments, the insurance bills, and the coach class airfares that have to be extracted from their modest winnings. Anyone who has breathed easier when a struggling coworker returns to the cubicle next to theirs holding a performance review that's one or two notches above the termination line can appreciate what a PGA Tour event's bottom few inches of final results represent. Elevating the importance of the scufflers does not imply a lack of respect for the athletes who dominate pro golf. Like Duval or Tom Lehman, some of them are repeat qualifiers who once spent long years grinding away at their games with minimal success.
But in a time when pro athletes play for sums of money that will keep their grandchildren from ever having to work, it's clear that pro golf's qualifying ritual is not the equivalent of draft day for the NBA or NFL. There are 900 athletes who make the NFL rosters each year. Big league baseball's combined player count is 700. In pro hockey there are 550 roster slots, and in the NBA about 360. On the PGA Tour (where the bottom one fourth of eligible players don't earn enough money to cover expenses), there are only 150 to 180 eligible players. And still, any golfer's grand entrance into the big time stands a good chance of being followed by a departure. Then a reentry. Then two or three more repetitions of the cycle. Not to say that basketball players don't get cut from one team and either head for Europe or look for tryouts with other American clubs, but can you imagine how glamorous the NBA draft would be if players continually reentered it?
Inside these pages are the triumphs, turnarounds, failures, and confessions of the obscure and unwashed athletes who populate the cruel and unusual tournament known as Q School. Every serious golfer is a dreamer, and most professional golfers down through the years have kept secret, unwritten diaries full of fond dreams for what they might accomplish in competition. The mystery of who makes it and who misses has turned them inside out looking for some blessed edge or advantage that could put them over the top.
One of those hopefuls was Rick Vershure, now a club professional in suburban New York, who made it to the Q School finals eight times but never got his tour card.
"The last time I tried, the finals were at Palm Coast, Florida," recalled Vershure recently. "Every other time I showed up at a final, I felt unnerved," he said. "That last time, I honestly felt equal to the other players." Vershure's ball striking that week was reliable to the point of monotony, but he found he was tapping in for par instead of holing his birdie putts. "I came to the 107th hole [out of 108 total] needing to finish par par," he recounted. "I was still hitting the ball well, but I wasn't making many birdies. That wore on me. I felt like I was out there just playing and playing and playing." The monotony was broken when Vershure three putted to bogey hole number 107.
"The first putt was a level 20 footer that hit the hole and slid two feet by," he explained, for perhaps the 100th time. Two feet, the ultimate panic attack distance for any make or break putt.
"I hit the hole again, coming back, but the ball wouldn't drop," Vershure confessed. As he later recalled it, that afternoon on the Matanzas Woods course "was as mentally exhausting as anything I've been through. To come that close and miss ... it can cost you so much, and for such a long time, if you let it."
In the years since, Vershure has served as head professional at the prestigious Quaker Ridge Golf Club and competed successfully in sectional and national club pro competition. His colleagues in the Metropolitan section of the PGA sometimes speak like men who have seen a ghost when they talk about the period after Vershure returned from his '87 Q School crack up. "A couple of us had lunch with him about a month after it happened," recalled Mike Diffley, head professional at Pelham Country Club in New York. "He told the story, and it still shook him to tell it. We all knew what it was like to give away a tournament. But this was, you know, a career. Watching him talk about it, you could see he was in the act of resigning himself to being a club pro."
Vershure, with the benefit of a decade's hindsight, sensed where our conversation about his tour qualifying quest was going. He anticipated the question about a different life, a life that had slipped away, and offered his answer.
"If I had only made it onto the tour, all the tournaments and money I would have won... Are you about to ask me if I think about that all the time?" Vershure inquired. "No, not me. I may have that fantasy moment every once in a while, but I can honestly say I never wasted any time wondering what might have happened."
That "fantasy moment" defines PGA Tour Qualifying School. The Q School's field contains players who have fantasy moments and draw inspiration from them, players who live almost permanently inside those fantasy moments and are enslaved by them, and a few players who have forgotten what the fantasy moment really feels like and are trying to capture it all over again.
And I suppose there are also a few who aren't chasing a fantasy but are running from a curse somebody once laid on them a curse that went something like, "Son, you aren't goin' anywhere." Players burdened in that way seem to stay on the move, competing in places most of us have barely heard of, dropping out of sight for long stretches at a time. They are hard guys to keep track of, and your best bet is to try and find them at Q School. They tend to show up for that annual test of golf where the questions are always the same, hoping that this time finally they know all the right answers.
Copyright 1999 by David Gould