In less than a month, the final stage of Korn Ferry Tour Q-School will be played, offering varying levels of exempt status to 40 or so players on the best developmental tour in the world.
They will be one very good season from the PGA Tour and all the potential riches that await. But getting through today’s version of Q-School doesn’t guarantee unlimited starts. Players must earn those by playing well in their early events.
They will play in front of small crowds and for a fraction of the prize money that the big tour offers but it’s another step up the career ladder, unless you’re one of those forced to take one step down the ladder.
Now think about all the players who didn’t reach the final stage, those who were pushed aside in the pre-qualifiers or the first or second stages.
It’s one thing if you’re 17-year-old Akshay Bhatia, who is skipping college to play his way onto the tour but now finds himself without any status on any tour. Time, if not status, is on his side.
It’s something else if you’re 37-year-old John Merrick (pictured above), who won the 2013 Northern Trust Open at famed Riviera but now is just another guy chasing birdies wherever he can find them. There are plenty of guys such as Merrick, formerly familiar names for whom golf is now truly work.
And what about all the dreamers scattered across mini-tours from Florida to Arizona and anywhere else that offers a chance to play for a few bucks to feed the dream? Hundreds, no, thousands, of players wonder if they’re good enough to tee it up against Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka.
If they’re wondering if they’re good enough, they already know the answer but they’re not ready to find another line of work. Playing professional golf is romantic in a dig-it-out-of-the-dirt kind of way. It’s alluring and addictive, the vaporous notion that this is the day or this is the week.
The reality is that it’s a wickedly hard profession which makes what Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and – of course – Tiger Woods do week in and week out even more impressive. That’s why when a mullet-topped John Daly shows up out of nowhere and wins the PGA Championship or Derek Ernst beats the best players in the world when he’s ranked outside the top 1,000, it’s golf’s version of winning the lottery and just as unlikely.
Unless there’s a personal connection or you like reading names and numbers, chances are you paid little or no attention to the Korn Ferry Tour qualifying process, which culminates Dec. 12-15 at Orange County National in Orlando, Fla. Maybe you checked out who advanced from one stage to the next but the biggest numbers encompass those left behind.
That’s the nature of the beast. It’s hard – harder than most of us can appreciate.
They’re not handing out keys to courtesy cars where most pros tee it up. There may be a lunch buffet but they’re paying for it out of their own pocket.
On the mini-tours, if you’re not making birdies you’re getting run over. In many cases, players are putting up their own money in hopes of winning it and a little more back. It can be as glamorous as road work but there’s no shortage of players who keep coming back, absorbing the whipping the game can give, asking for more.
Playing professional golf is romantic in a dig-it-out-of-the-dirt kind of way. It’s alluring and addictive, the vaporous notion that this is the day or this is the week.
For the young ones, fresh out of college and good enough to wow the folks back home, it’s hard to blame them for giving it a try. It’s the whole “no regrets” thing, not wanting to be the person sitting in an office 10 years down the road, wondering what might have been.
For most, the ask is too much. Eventually the three-putts or too many rounds of 71 wear them down and they accept the inevitable. There’s plenty to be said for trying, though.
There are others who refuse to surrender, their 20s turning into their 30s and maybe even their 40s as they grind away. It’s a tough way to make a living but, as the saying goes, if it were easy everyone would do it. Once you know the feeling of catching a 4-iron dead flush and seeing it inhaling the flagstick in the distance, it’s seductive.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as playing well at the right time. Finding a moment and seizing it. It’s easy to wonder how many really good players never got to the PGA Tour because they never played well enough at the right time.
When Jordan Spieth and Matthew Wolff make it look easy to come out of college and start winning on the PGA Tour, they are the special ones. They’ve been gifted a little something extra.
For almost everyone else, the dream goes unfulfilled. The yellow brick road is paved with potholes. It’s not all about the journey. It’s about the destination.
Dreams die hard.
If they die at all.