Commentary

Amazingly, many players who don't need to be at Q-school choose to play

Originally Published: December 4, 2008
By Peter Yoon | Special to ESPN.com

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- Olin Browne doesn't need to be here.

Back To School

In an effort to give ESPN.com readers insight into different golfers at various stages in their careers, we will select one player from each of the three categories listed below each day during PGA Tour Q-school and delve into their story of how they got here and where they are headed.

The categories are:

1. PGA Tour veterans trying to hold on to their cards in the final years before they are old enough to attempt to play on the Champions Tour.

2. Players in the middle of their careers trying to revive a derailed PGA Tour dream or reach the tour after past failed attempts.

3. Rising stars seemingly destined for success who are trying to reach the tour for the first time.

Check back daily during Q-school for the latest news and results from one of the most grueling tests in golf.

Thursday's Players:
Veteran: Olin Browne
Career revival: Chris Riley
Rising star: Bryce Molder

-- Peter Yoon
There are more than 20 players in Q-school who don't necessarily have to be, but Browne especially doesn't need to be here.

He could have called it a career on the PGA Tour, traded in his 4-iron for a hybrid, his short putter for a long one, and waited until he received a Champions Tour card for his 50th birthday in May.

Instead, he's undertaking one of the most pressure-packed tournaments in golf.

He could be at home in Florida, plotting a schedule of four or five early-season tournaments he surely could get into based on his past champion status.

But Browne is enduring rounds of five-plus hours, grinding over wedge shots and fretting over missed 4-foot putts at PGA West in the Southern California desert.

Brown and 23 others have undertaken the grueling, 108-hole tournament despite already maintaining some status on the PGA Tour for next year.

Some, such as Bryce Molder, Ricky Barnes and Spencer Levin are already fully exempt for next year because they finished among the top 25 on the 2008 Nationwide Tour money list. Others are in Browne's category, past champions who could get into about 15 or 20 tournaments in 2009.

Most guys would rather hear nails on a chalkboard than play in Q-school. Not these guys.

"I'm a glutton for punishment," Browne joked Thursday after shooting a bogey-free 66 at the Nicklaus Tournament Course in the second round.

[+] EnlargeChris Riley
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Riley had played so impressively earlier this decade that he made the 2004 U.S. Ryder Cup team. Just a few years later, he's hoping for one of the precious few PGA Tour cards handed out at Q-school.
There are, of course, other reasons.

Unanswered questions, for one. Browne, who has three PGA Tour victories, was healthy this season for the first time since 2005 as he came back from a hand injury, but he wasn't able to devote his full attention to playing because he was an assistant captain for Paul Azinger's victorious Ryder Cup team.

He played 27 tournaments, but made only 11 cuts and lost his fully exempt status. He'd like another crack at the world's best players before heading out to the over-50 circuit.

"I'm doing this because I want to keep playing," Browne said.

Playing Q-school with some kind of status already in pocket is like playing with house money. That allows players to be more aggressive and keeps them from tightening up as much at crunch time.

"It's different," said Molder, who shot 5-under 67 Thursday on the Stadium Course and is tied for 11th with a two-day total of 9-under. "You're comfortable, and you're just playing golf. That'll change on Sunday or Monday and I'm right there and I have a chance to improve my status or a chance to win or something like that, but it still won't be the same."

Improving status is about the only thing Levin, Molder and Barnes can do at Q-school. They finished 22nd, 23rd and 25th, respectively, on the Nationwide Tour money list in 2008 and would easily get into 25-30 tournaments next year. But they are looking to improve their status so they can get into more early-season tournaments.

It might mean getting into just two more events, but that's enough to get them out to Q-school.

"If I had been 15th, I wouldn't have [played Q-school]," Molder said. "There was still part of me last week going 'gosh it would be nice to be home,' but that's part of your job. It's just a chance to get better."

Still, there is nobody who really wants to be at Q-school. Most would rather have the exact status they want so they can map out the exact schedule they want to play, and that is the main reason they show up.

Chris Riley, for example, is a past champion who played so well from 2002 to 2004 that he made the 2004 Ryder Cup team. His game subsequently fell off, though, and he has spent the past few years trying to find it.

He's not too proud to have played on the Nationwide Tour -- he won an event on that circuit in 2007 and even played five times on that tour in 2008 -- so he's certainly not too proud to play at Q-school.

"Obviously, the goal would be not to be here," Riley said. "So that part is hard. But it always helps to know you already have some status. I'm not living or dying over everything."

That approach served him well Thursday, when he shot 67 at the Nicklaus course and moved to within a shot of the top 25 that earn PGA Tour cards for next year. But Riley, who turns 35 next week, said he's feeling more pressure this year than he did going through Q-school 10 years ago.

"I didn't know what I was doing when I was 24 or 25 trying to go through it," he said. "You just play. Now you think more about the game and think about what's going on. Plus, you know, I've had my card, so I know exactly what that means and what's at stake. I say it's definitely harder this time around."

Molder, 29, has also had his card. Twice, in fact, but he's been unable to keep it. He was a phenom coming out of Georgia Tech as a four-time All-American, but he said he feels better prepared this time around.

"I'm more comfortable in my own game," Molder said. "I know the best way for me to play. The times I've been out, I think I struggled thinking there was a certain way you were supposed to play. Not only shoot well, but make it look good. That's where I'm a different player now than I have been in quite a number of years."

Browne simply wants to find out what kind of player he is now. After his second-round 66 boosted him 76 spots into a tie for 50th, he artfully dodged questions about whether he plans to join the Champions Tour.

"I'm worried about what I'm going to do tomorrow and then after tomorrow I'll worry about what I'm going to do in the fourth round and so on through the end of this week," he said. "And then I'm going to figure out what I'm going to do."

Browne then grabbed a few balls from his golf bag and dashed off to practice putting, lamenting the fact that he had missed a couple of putts.

The guy shoots 66 and is stressed about his putting?

Sounds an awful lot like one of the guys who has to be here.

Peter Yoon is a contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage.

Peter Yoon

ESPNLosAngeles.com