STEVE INSKEEP, host:
When Phil Mickelson won the Players Championship on Sunday, he earned $1.6 million for four rounds of golf. Only a few players earn that kind of money. And in any given year only a few hundred at most get the privilege of playing the PGA Tour, the big leagues for pro golf.
Many more golfers struggle just to have the chance to play, because to join the PGA Tour, most players have to qualify. That means playing in the National Qualifying Tournament, simply known as Q School. For those players, in a way, the personal stakes are higher than for Mickelson or Tiger Woods.
MORNING EDITION commentator John Feinstein watched the Q School in 2005 and wrote a book about what he found.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: You're learning your craft and how to deal with the pressures of your craft, because there's nothing more pressurized than knowing that if you play well, you get to play for millions of dollars the next year. If you play poorly, you might be playing for no dollars.
INSKEEP: This is really significant, I guess. You've got more than 1,200 people, most of them really deserved to be there, right? Most of them are really good golfers and only a handful of them are going to get anywhere.
FEINSTEIN: Exactly. If you walk down the range at the first stage - there are 14 first stage sites of Q School every year - and just watch the guys swing a golf club, you couldn't tell the difference between them and the guys on the tour. They can all hit it 300 yards, they all have beautiful swings. The difference is that the guys at the top level can play under the most pressure. That's where you separate the men from the boys, the women from the girls in professional golf. It's your ability to repeat your swing under pressure and to make putts under pressure. Tiger Woods, in 2005, had 485 putts on tour of five feet or less. He missed none of them. That's one of the reasons he's Tiger Woods.
INSKEEP: We should explain for people who don't play golf how hard it is to hit a five-foot putt…
FEINSTEIN: Under pressure. In fact, three to five-foot putt, especially when it means something, players call it the throw-up zone because you're just about to throw up you're so nervous.
INSKEEP: I wonder if you could tell me the story of a man named Stephen Gangluff. Am I pronouncing it correctly?
FEINSTEIN: Yes, Stephen Gangluff played on the PGA Tour in 2002. He made it to the tour, he played for a year, he did not keep his playing privileges. You have to finish in the top 125 on the money list to automatically go on the next year, otherwise you go back to Q School. He went back, didn't make it through, didn't make it through second stage the next year. So he had no place to golf and he had no money.
He hadn't made enough money to put money away at that point in his life. And he needed a place to practice because he was going - wanted to try Q School again the next year and he went to a club in Ponte Vedra, Florida, and said, if you let me practice here, I'll work as a cart boy. In other words, when the members come up to play, he ran and got their clubs and put the clubs on the cart and hoped to get a tip. And this was two years after he has playing on the PGA Tour for millions of dollars, riding around in a courtesy car. You can fall unbelievably fast and hard in golf.
INSKEEP: And you have people who have been quite famous at some point on the tour.
FEINSTEIN: Absolutely. Yeah, Larry Mize, Masters champion 1987. Maybe the most famous shot in golf when he chipped in to beat Greg Norman in the playoffs there, and he was back in Q School in 2005. He actually had to go back to second stage. He wasn't even exempt into the finals. And it was funny, because I was walking around with him one day - you don't see very many fans at Q Schools, mostly just relatives and close friends, but there are a couple of hundred people come out to watch the finals. And one fan yelled at Larry - Mr. Mize, you don't deserve to be here. And he said, oh, no, I do, I got through second stage, I earned this.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: The fan meant you should never have to do this.
FEINSTEIN: Right. You're Masters champion, this is beneath you. And there are a lot of stars who think it's beneath them to go back to Q School, but often they had no choice. There were 42 guys in the 2005 Q School, second stage and the finals, who at one point in their life won at least once on the PGA Tour and they were all back playing Q School.
INSKEEP: Can you just give a flavor of one of the final days that you remember from this one year that you tracked? What's it like at the golf course as you move around, what kinds of things are happening all at once?
FEINSTEIN: Steve Carman, the guy who runs the Q School for the tours, says it's the quietest golf tournament you'll ever see. I literally saw a guy make a hole in one one day and there was no sound except for a couple of high fives from the caddies and the other two players in his group, because there's so much pressure and everybody's within themselves. And it's six days in the finals and you feel like you've been there for a year by the time it's over.
INSKEEP: What do you learn, then, about the PGA Tour itself by looking at the struggle that some of these guys have to go through to get there?
FEINSTEIN: That it's just not as easy as it looks. When you watch the tour on TV week after week and you see they're playing for $6.3 million one week for $8 million, first prize is a million dollars. And you know Tiger Woods lives and Phil Mickelson lives. That's not what professional golf is, that's the exception to rule. Professional golf is a Jaxon Brigman who makes it to the tour the last day, shoots a 65 the last day at Q School. And because he so keyed up and excited, he doesn't notice that one of his playing partners has written a four on a hole where he made a three. He signs his card and that becomes his score officially. Because he signed for the wrong score, that's his score. So he misses by one shot because of that and has never made it to the tour after having made it based on his play, but based on the rules, he didn't make it.
INSKEEP: You stories in here have guys who commit a rules violation, which in golf is usually inadvertent…
FEINSTEIN: Almost always.
INSKEEP: And this violation in a normal tournament they might have to go home for the weekend.
INSKEEP: But it's a violation that's going to cause him to go home for the year.
FEINSTEIN: Exactly right. I saw a guy at first stage named Chris Whistler(ph), a good player. And the tour has rules that you have to play around the golf with the same brand of golf ball. If you start out with Titleist, you finish with Titleist, because they don't want them demonstrating and getting paid to play Nike one whole, Callaway the next hole. But at Q School, there's no gallery, and this guy is playing in front of a gallery that consisted of a guy who'd been fishing out on the golf course and happened to be walking by and accidentally reaches into his bag - most of guys at first stage don't have caddies - and takes out a different brand of golf ball. When he realizes what he's done, he calls in the rules official, explains what happened. And the rules official said, I'm really sorry, Chris, but you're disqualified. And you pay to play in Q School, $4,500, because they don't want to encourage hackers to come out and play. And after 16 holes, Chris Whistler had to shake hands with his playing partners and walk into the clubhouse.
INSKEEP: Is there anybody who blew it in 2005, who said to you later, you know, that was really a great thing to happened to me now that I'm in the Peace Corps, or in the ministry, or working as a nuclear scientist, or whatever they're doing instead?
FEINSTEIN: I haven't found anybody who said anything quite like that, but David Sutherland, who didn't make it 2005 and was talking - he was 39 and a very bright guy and kept saying, you know, if I don't make it, I think I need to start looking for my second act. And right now, he's teaching English at the high school where he grew up in Sacramento, California. And I talked to him the other day, and he said I'm having a time of my life. I loved playing golf, but I found second act and I couldn't be happier right now.
INSKEEP: John Feinstein is the author of "Tales from Q School." Thanks for coming by, John.
FEINSTEIN: Thanks for having me, Steve.
INSKEEP: And you can read the first chapter of "Tales from Q School" by going to our Web site, npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee is back with us tomorrow. I'm Steve Inskeep.