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To many, Q School feels 'a little weird'

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- Precisely 175 yards from the 18th pin Wednesday afternoon, under a sun-drenched, cloudless sky, in the first of six rounds of golf that some might consider the most important of his career, 33-year-old professional golfer Brian Kortan pulled out a 7-iron.

He stroked the shot perfectly, met the ball exactly where he wanted to and watched it fly, land, bounce and roll six inches from the cup.

Then ... silence.

If this were the U.S. Open, the gallery would have erupted.

Heck, if it were the Southern Farm Bureau Classic, the gallery would have erupted.

But this was the opening day of the PGA Tour National Qualifying Tournament -- also known as Q School. And on this hole, at this time, the shot that helped Kortan birdie the 18th and leave him tied for sixth place at 4 under went unnoticed at the green. It had to. Nobody was there.

"Well, that's Q School," Kortan said. "You learn to deal with it."

"It's a little weird," his younger brother and caddie Rob said. "Just kind of like playing back at home."

With a whole lot more on the line. Back in September, 1,239 players filled out applications and coughed up $4,000 in hopes of "dealing with it." Only 169 members of that group -- just over 10 percent -- remain. They converged on the golfing Mecca that is PGA West on Wednesday, for the first round of the grueling, six-day, 108-hole marathon to determine who will be playing with Tiger and Phil in 2005 and who will be headed back to golf's minor leagues.

It's considered one of the most pressure-packed weeks in sports. All that's at stake is a livelihood. Yet only the top 30 (plus ties) will leave with what they came for -- a PGA Tour card. The rest will go home empty-handed.

Yet on Wednesday, you'd think you were watching a random match between Palm Springs and Palm Desert High School. There were no marshals. No ropes. No fancy bibs over the caddies to identify their player. No standard-bearers holding any scorecards.

Between holes, the participants walked right alongside the spectators. If only there were spectators. Perhaps the biggest gallery of the day came midway through the afternoon on the 18th hole, when Tim O'Neal, trying to join Tiger Woods as the second African-American on the PGA Tour, holed a 35-foot putt for birdie.

Eighteen people watched O'Neal sink his putt yet he barely got two claps and a soft, "Nice shot."

"(It's) like the twilight zone," said five-time PGA Tour winner Ken Green, who saw some of golf's greatest galleries as a member of the 1989 U.S. Ryder Cup team, but is back at Q School for the fifth time in seven years. "The people that are out there, it's almost like they're afraid to make any noise. It's something you have to adjust to. It isn't a hard thing, it's just a strange thing."

They don't sell tickets, they don't charge for parking and members of the media can be counted on two hands. At one point on Wednesday, there were just as many dogs watching participants tee off on the 1st hole of the Nicklaus course (three) as there were humans.

When Olin Browne teed off to start the tournament seconds after 9 a.m., there were more PGA Tour officials around the tee box (11) than there were fans (nine).

But the players don't seem to care. Some have Mom and Dad roaming the courses with them; others have college buddies cheering them along. Some have their wife carrying their bag; others, like Kortan, their brother.

They do whatever it takes, whatever will make them feel comfortable, to help them survive. It's a tournament where players have puked on the course. Where they've walked off mid-round. Where careers have been both born and buried.

And Wednesday was just the beginning.

"You aren't going to win your tour card on the first day," Brian Kortan said. "But you can lose it. I'm just glad to be one of those guys that got off on the right foot."

Even if no one was watching.

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.