- Wayne Drehs, ESPN Senior Writer
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LA QUINTA, Calif. -- For the better part of the last five days, the cutthroat, pressure-packed tournament that is PGA Tour Qualifying School has seemed more like a friendly member-guest. Players have chatted up and down the fairway, encouraged one another to "play well" and even offered consolation to those who have struggled.
But when the sun rises in the southern California desert Monday morning, that will all change. That's when players who have stayed cool, calm and collected all week will melt into mush.
That's when drivers and putters will get tossed into trash cans. When players step onto the first tee and their stomachs will tell them they need a trash can themselves.
In a sport where organizers pray for a final day gut-wrencher, hoping for the drama of six guys within three shots of the lead on the final nine, Q School's grand finale guarantees dramatic golf theater.
Eighteen holes will be all that stands between the PGA Tour and the mini tours, between playing in Chicago and playing in Scottsbluff. And 40 players currently sit within four shots of the projected cut.
Before it's all over, players will cry. Wives will cry. Children will cry. Guys will retire, realizing the dream of reaching the PGA Tour is just that -- a dream.
"It's the ultimate test of nerves," said Nationwide player Bob Heintz. "Either you're made of what it takes to get the job done or you aren't. And you bail."
Sometime Monday afternoon the top 30 (plus ties) will earn their 2004 PGA Tour membership cards. It means that roughly 97 percent of the 1,239 players who participated in the qualifying tournament will have failed.
Compared to the NFL (which has roster spots for 900), baseball (room for 700), or even the NBA (approximately 360 players), the largest field for a PGA Tour event is 156 players.
Come Monday, all that will be on the line for the 167 remaining competitors is their livelihood. By earning your card, even if you have a mediocre year on tour, the sponsorships and prize money can be lucrative. After earning his first tour card in 2003, Brian Kortan finished 200th on the PGA Tour money list and, with endorsements, made in excess of $150,000.
"I haven't made a million dollars," Kortan said. "But I've made more than if I had to sit in an office all day and do something I wasn't crazy about."
Which makes the pressure all the more palpable. Even on Saturday, with 36 holes left, the atmosphere began to change. Clubs were slammed into divots. Players coming off the 18th tee started pointing finger guns at their temples. Agents and sponsors began combing the grounds, hoping to latch onto the next Todd Hamilton or Ryan Palmer. And for the first time all week, live television cameras showed up, broadcasting the drama nationwide.
By Sunday, players were slamming their clubs with greater frequency. Omar Uresti smashed his hand against the scorer's trailer and whispered a few unfriendly words. In one hole, Kortan went from even-par on the day and still within striking distance in 51st place to 6 over and T-99.
He shot an 11 on the par-5 17th on the Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course.
Come Monday, the tumultuousness will be taken to a whole new level.
"If you have one hint of doubt in your brain on the back nine on Monday, you're not going to make it," tour veteran Ken Green said.
"You're going to see a lot of grown men running around with stains in their slacks," one caddie said. "And I'll be right there with them."
One thing is certain: Something unthinkable will happen and it will likely cost someone his card.
In 1999, it was Jaxon Brigman, who signed an incorrect scorecard. Brigman's playing partner wrote down a 4 when he actually made a 3. PGA rules required that his incorrectly high score stand, giving him an official 66, not the 65 he had shot. It was good for a six-round total of 413, not the magic 412 he needed to earn his card.
Afterwards, he held his wife and cried.
"It was almost like a death in the family," said Brigman, who has yet to reach the PGA Tour and is currently tied for 79th. "For five minutes, I had my PGA Tour card."
Then there's Tim O'Neal, who in 2000 had aspirations of joining Tiger Woods as the only African-American golfers on tour. O'Neal needed only bogey-bogey on the last two holes to earn his card, but after bogeying 17 he sliced his drive into the water on 18 and made triple-bogey.
"There's nothing -- no tournament, no event -- that compares to the pressure out here on a Monday," O'Neal said. "But you just have to get through it."
That same year, one of Joe Daley's putts ricocheted off the lip of a cup that was improperly installed and he missed by one stroke.
In 1995, Eric Epperson bogeyed six of the last nine holes in 1995 to lose his card. Two years later, John Riegger shot triple-bogey, bogey, triple-bogey and walked off the course after the 17th hole.
In 2001, Roland Thatcher hit his approach on the final hole onto the clubhouse roof. He dropped, made triple-bogey and missed by one shot. That same year, Bud Still accidentally stepped on his ball on the 16th hole, admitted the mistake, took a one-stroke penalty and eventually missed by -- you guessed it -- one stroke.
"I was so mad at myself, I about started crying," Still said at the time. "No way this can happen. But those are the little things that make Q School so interesting."
Already this week, two players have withdrawn. And another, S.K. Ho, was disqualified for signing an inaccurate scorecard.
If history is an example, it's only the beginning.
"You're going to see things that you never imagined were possible on a golf course," Green said. "It's the type of thing that's painful to watch, like a car crash. The key is to make sure you're not in it."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.
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