To many, Q School feels 'a little weird'
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ESPN.com will be tracking the progress of three players throughout Q School week. Ken Green, 46, is a five-time champion on the PGA Tour, but hasn't won since 1989. He finished 233rd on the 2004 money list. Brian Kortan, 33, played in seven Q Schools without reaching the final stage before earning his first tour card on his eighth try last year. He finished 200th on the 2004 money list. Tim O'Neal, 31, was on the cusp of reaching the tour in 1999. On the final hole of Q School, needing only a bogey to secure his card, O'Neal made triple-bogey. This is his first trip back to the final stage since then.
Here's how these three players fared in Wednesday's opening round:
Green's 4-under 68 left him in a share of sixth place and optimistic for the rest of the week, considering he went low with a balky driver and some pulled iron shots. Appropriately enough, Green saved himself on the greens, needing only 23 putts in the round.
"When you pull off a round like that, hitting the ball as poorly as I hit it, you feel like you dodged a bullet. That doesn't happen in golf." -- Green
Kortan's 68 featured five birdies and only one bogey. The best of the birdies was undoubtedly his 174-yard approach on 18 to within inches of the cup.
"I played solid, but more than anything, it's great just to get this thing started and get all that anxiety behind you." -- Kortan
Not to be outdone by the other featured players, O'Neal also shot an opening-round 68. Still, the Jackson State product wasn't completely satisfied, saying he felt he left two or three shots out on the course.
"You want to get off to a decent start and I did that, especially considering I really didn't play that well. I can't complain." -- O'Neal
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.