Panama City, Fla., land of MTV's Spring Break and Girls Gone Wild & is as quiet as finals week at the Harvard Law School Library this November night. The parking lots for the beachfront resorts are empty, the neon signs that guide college kids to dollar drafts and wet T-shirt contests are dim. Aside from tattoo and body-piercing joints, little appears to be open this time of year save for a strip mall illuminated in the distance, where Tony Roma's is serving up its famous ribs. There, seated at the bar, sit three golfers. And why is it obvious these guys are golfers? The first hint is their caps, inscribed with names of equipment companies. The second hint is their talk of morning tee times. "What time you going off?" "8:10." "Ouch." An eavesdropper at the bar asks, "You guys here for Q-School?" When all three nod, he asks what is apparently the dumbest question ever. "This your first time?" All three men laugh. "We wish," says one. They introduce themselves. John Elliott. Jeff Freeman. Bobby Gage. They don't laugh much after this first exchange, not about golf anyway. Q-School, a.k.a. the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, isn't a happy place for golfers. In fact, its unofficial name is Hell.
Q-School is where PGA Tour players who fail to finish in the top 125 on the previous year's money list go to get their Tour cards back. The 42-year-old Elliott, known as Jumbo for obvious reasons, came spots for amateurs whose Q-School applications have been approved by the PGA.) The entry fee? Between $3,500 and $4,500, depending on when you enter the field. The more success you've had, the later you enter and the less you pay. The reason it's called school is because players who earn their Tour cards for the first time must attend a two-day PGA orientation.
Calling it school, though, hardly does the event justice. This is Survivor, The Apprentice, The Amazing Race, only more grueling. At Q-School in 2003, Gage was taken from the course by ambulance after experiencing chest pains. "I've been such a grinder for so many years," the 40-year-old says. "I haven't gotten where I should be. A lot of demons can get in your head."
PANAMA CITY Beach's Hombre Golf Club is one of six sites that will host the second stage. The first was held in October at 14 different tracks across the U.S. Slightly less than half the field (about 900 players) advanced to the second stage. Get through that back at Q-School for the first time since 1981. But most are anonymous, even to a Golf Channel junkie. The big names are not nearly as interesting as the few guys who stand out in this sea of khaki. Like the brawny fellow with the small beer gut and big smile at the first tee. He's wearing green nylon pants with orange writing down the legs that reads "Mossy Oak," a hunting gear company that specializes in camouflage. They're one of his sponsors.
Thomas Brent Weekley, nicknamed Boo thanks to a childhood liking of Yogi Bear's sidekick, is something of a Nationwide folk hero. "Boo will talk to anybody," says his wife, Karyn, who walks all 18 at Hombre with her man. "About the only thing that upsets him is slow play, because his mind starts wandering to huntin' and fishin'." Boo played on the PGA Tour in 2002, qualifying out of Q-School, and says, "It went by so fast, I can't even tell you half the places I went." He finished 200th on the money list ($95,206). Last year, on the Nationwide, he finished 91st ($50,846). But at 32, he still feels he deserves a place in the bigs. "The Tour needs
straight to Florida from the Southern Farm Bureau Classic in Mississippi, where he missed the cut to finish the season ranked 221st ($67,819). A native of Bristol, Conn., Jumbo's been on and off Tour for about a dozen years. A card for 2006 should secure him a spot in at least 25 PGA events. And there's not a single guy on Tour who doesn't think he can have one or two good weeks given 25 chances. Consider that 46 Tour players made $1 million or more in 2005 without winning a tournament, and you can see why a card means so much. (Of course, winning has other advantages, such as a two-year exemption from Q-School.)
But Q-School is more than just guys who've fallen down. It's also where players from the Nationwide Tour, golf's version of Triple-A, try to move up. The top 20 Nationwide players are bumped up to the Tour. It's Q-School for the rest, including the 43-year-old Freeman who, despite playing in all 29 Nationwide events, finished 63rd on its money list ($84,245). A pro since 1990, Freeman's never had a PGA Tour card. Still, he keeps trying.
And the field doesn't end there. Q-School is also for players from the Hooters Tour, Canadian Tour, Tight Lies Tour and a bunch of other "minitours" that make up golf's minor leagues. (There are also (about 165 will) and it's on to the finals, also known as Hell Week: six rounds in six days at the Orange County National Golf Center in Winter Garden, Fla. The top 30 (plus ties) get cards. The next 50 (maximum) get full Nationwide status. The rest get nonexempt status on the Nationwide. They get to tee it up sometimes, but not always.
The scene at Hombre is surreal. No tickets. No ropes. Just a bunch of golfers changing into golf shoes in the parking lot. Some players carry their own bags or use pull-carts. The pairings sheet, taped to the pro-shop door, bears some familiar names, including former Masters champ Larry Mize, me," he says. "It's too snobbish out there, no one high-fiving or nothin'. When I was up there, people thought I was fake. Like, how can he be so friendly? Well, even if I don't get love, I'm gonna give it."
As he makes the turn, Boo points and says, "Over yonder's a boy to follow. Name's Josh Broadaway, plays crosshanded." Karyn says that Boo and Broadaway traveled together on the Nationwide a few years back. From a distance, Broadaway's tee shot seems ordinary. But up closer, the left-hand-low grip comes into focus. Bizarre. "I been hitting it this way since I was 5," says Broadaway, a native of Albany, Ga. "My grandfather taught me how to play. When I got to be about 12, he said I had to learn how to hold it the right way. Well, I couldn't get the ball off the ground. Then I'd turn my hands around and pure it every time. Finally, he said, `Do it your way.' He died before I turned pro. Sad."
Broadaway, 27, finished second on the Hooters money list ($73,380) in 2005. He and his wife, Tina, have a 6-week-old son, Alex, whom they might as well have named Motivation. "These guys are out here playing for things like better health insurance for their families," Karyn says. "That's what people, even our friends, don't get." Weekley and Broadaway breeze through the second stage, finishing in the top 10. Of the threesome at Tony Roma's, only Gage survives. Elliott, at plusone, misses advancing by two strokes; Freeman shoots plus-10 to finish tied for 58th. Both will head back to the minitours.
LESS THAN three weeks later, the vibe in Winter Garden is not unlike that in Panama City, with a few tweaks. Every player has a caddie. There are some reporters milling about, even a handful of fans. A threesome that includes Notah Begay III (a four-time winner on the PGA Tour) and Esteban Toledo (an ex-boxer from Mexico and a Tour vet) has drawn a small gallery. When Toledo is introduced, there's modest applause from six fans wearing Orange County National caps. "We work on the courses," one says. "We're from Mexico, like Esteban. We're here to support him."
The third member of the trio impresses on sight. He is 6'5", 235 pounds and equally colossal off the tee. His name is Ryan Hietala-or, as it says on his bag, Ryan "The Riddler" Hietala. ("I liked to tell jokes as a kid," he says.) Riddle No. 1: the 32-year-old Hietala, a pro since 1997, hits the ball better than Begay and Toledo, and putts it more convincingly, too. Why, you wonder as he shoots an effortless six-under, has this guy never made the PGA Tour?
On Day 2, answers emerge. After making an eagle on his first hole to move to eight-under, Hietala gives it all back in five holes. Bogey, bogey, double, triple, bogey. From minus-eight to even in an hour and a half. Later in the day, on the range hitting countless balls into the twilight sky, Hietala is asked how he managed to shoot par on his final nine after five holes like that. "It's the final stage," he says. "You can't give up your dream that easily." Sure enough, on Day 3, Hietala again looks like a player, posting 66 to get to minus-six. No wonder so many of these guys carry Maalox in their bags.
And no wonder so many thrill-seekers are drawn to Q-School. When play slows to a standstill on Day 3, a youngish-looking player in Hietala's group comments on the chilly weather. "I've become such a wuss," says the kid, who's wearing Oakleys and tight Euro-style pants. "I used to live in a van in Montana and I never complained. It gets to 50Ê here and I whine like a little girl."
"You lived in a van in Montana?" Hietala asks.
"Yeah," says the kid, "I was a pro snowboarder."
The kid, it turns out, is 31-year-old Will MacKenzie, a PGA Tour rookie last season who finished 179th ($275,529). And, yeah, from age 18 to 25 he was a snowboarder, kayaker and rock climber. "Spiritually, I left golf at about 14," he says. "The life I chose was a pretty soulful thing, but I had an early midlife crisis and wanted more focus. So one day I went out and hit some balls, and decided I was going to try and make it as a golfer." Watch and listen to MacKenzie for a few holes, and you can't help but think that if he ever had that one big week at the right time, the Tour would have a new icon.
There are stories all over the two courses where the final stage is playing out. The most dramatic are on the line between the PGA and the Nationwide. Boo Weekley moves into that zone on Day 4. A round of three-under has him at minusseven, a shot off the line. "Right where I need to be," he says as he walks off the course. "In the hunt."
A hunt for big game. As Hietala's caddie and swing coach, Rob Nelson, says: "There's $250,000 to half a million dollars waiting for guys in the top 30 before they ever tee up on Tour." Such thoughtsof big endorsement deals and fat appearance feescreep into Hietala's mind late on Day 4. Too many five-footers for par leave him looking like a Wall Street broker after a bad close, although his 69 has him at minus-nine, one shot inside the number. "He was thinking about his future out there," says Nelson. "He needs to clear his brain."
On Day 5, Broadaway asks a player named Scott Gutschewski where he finished on the PGA money list the year before.
"One-forty-nine," Gutschewski says.
"What did you make?" Broadaway asks, smiling.
"Almost half a million."
And there was nothing the crosshanded kid from the Hooters Tour could whisper but "Damn." In fact, Gutschewski made $485,487 in 2005. By comparison, the leading Nationwide money winner, Troy Matteson, made $495,009.
That day, Broadaway fires a six-under 66 to get to minus-nine heading into the final round. Word on the range is that the number may fall to minus-12. Broadaway knows he'll have to put up something in the 60s to get his card. As fate would have it, he'll play his final round with his old pal Weekley, now at minus-eight. Right behind them is Hietala, who's been struggling to keep his focus. "Thinking about buying a new car for the first time in my life," he says. "About buying a house, about my fiancée, my wedding, having a family." Still, he's at nine-under. And at a Mexican restaurant that night, sitting with Nelson and a friend, Hietala orders soup, a big entrée and a huge margarita. But he takes just a few sips of the drink, a taste of the soup and maybe two bites of his dinner. "He'll be fine," Nelson says, reassuring their friend. "Tomorrow is going to be his day. He belongs on the Tour. It's his time."
And so it is. Hietala nullifies a bogey on the first hole with an eagle on two, then goes into a whole other gear. He drives it straight and putts it true. Even when he hits his one undeniably bad shot of the day, a cold shank on the par-3 15th, he gets up and down from a clump of pine straw, pumping his fist as he rolls in a slippery 12-footer. A round of three-under puts him at minus-12, a stroke inside the number, which turns out to be minus-11.
But the most dramatic moment of the week occurs in Broadaway and Weekley's group. Danny Ellis, 35, on Tour three of the past five years, stands at minus-nine heading to the par-5 18th. He drives it well but doesn't get enough of his approach shot, coming up 10 yards short. Ellis will say later that he wasn't sure if a birdie would be good enough to get him inside the line, but he knew he had to do better than par. In other words, he had to knock it tight. And he does more than that. A chip-in eagle moves him to minus-11, right on the number. Hello, card. "You try all week to play one shot at a time," Ellis says breathlessly. "One shot can mean it all."
Unfortunately, things don't go as well for his playing partners. Players call it "throwing up on yourself" or "blowing chunks." Boo puts two balls in the water en route to a double-bogey on No. 7, then triple-bogeys 10. After shooting par or better all week, he posts a 78 on Day 6, costing himself both a Tour card and full-time Nationwide status. As for Broadaway, he hangs in with a one-under front, but his shoulders sag after a bogey on 14. "I knew then I was going to have to make a whole lot of birdies," he says later. With his wife and parents walking along and his brother on the bag, it would be hard for even a coldhearted observer to watch this particular dream die without choking up. Says his mom, Sylvia: "Sometimes, I know Josh feels like he's hitting shots for every one of us."
On the par-3 15th, when Broadaway four-putts for a double, a look of resignation sets in. By the time the group hits the 16th, Boo is thinking of ways he and Josh can save money and have more fun next year. "Maybe we can rent a U-Haul or something for our bags," he says. Weekley walks a few holes on the back nine with his arm around Karyn, telling her, "It's just golf, darlin'. " Broadaway, meanwhile, has no sooner signed his scorecard in the trailer when Tina hands over Alex. "My goal was to get my card," says Broadaway. "But it's still been a great year." Watching the groups finish is like watching the end of a marathon, but instead of volunteers handing out medals and water there are agents giving out business cards. "That's Will MacKenzie," one whispers as the ex-boarder cruises home at minus-15. "Wiry, athletic, great swing. A real comer if you ask me."
In front of the clubhouse, two calligraphers hired by the PGA fill in the blanks on the scoreboard as players mill about, many with cigars ablaze and beers in hand. Thirty-two players have earned cards, while 46 more now have full Nationwide exemptions. Hietala holds up his cell. "Thirty-five messages so far."
That night, over beers and wings at Hooters, the big guy gets sentimental, explaining that he grew up in Colorado but his parents moved to Tucson when he was a teenager so he could chase his dream. "We had a really nice house in Aspen," Hietala says, "and my dad loved his job there." Hietala earned a scholarship to UTEP and began his quest for the Tour. His dad, though, never really adjusted. "He had some problems with alcohol," Hietala says, "and he and my mom split up for a while. But he's doing better and they're back together. He's the first guy I called, to thank him for all the sacrifices he and Mom made so I could try to play this game for a living. Finally, I feel like I'm where I belong."
He just had to go through Hell to get there.