"Yep," one of my companions confirmed, "you're wet."
I might as well have played the rest of the round in scuba gear and flippers. Instead of an easy birdie on 16, I took a hard-to-swallow double bogey. As the day wore on, my confidence steadily evaporated. I committed errors I hadn't made since I was 11 years old, chili-dipping wedges, smothering middle irons and, in obvious overreaction to my errant tee shot on 16, pulling drives I intended to fade.
I was snowballing—building up bigger and rounder numbers with every roll of my Maxfli—and I ended up shooting 81, a snowman with staff. That put me at nine over par and a daunting 18 shots behind the first-round leader, Edward Fryatt.
Having watched Bertsch and Budde, who had suffered but gotten it up and down enough to shoot 71 and 69, respectively, I realized the difference between real pros and the rest of us, them and me. Early on, I had had two of the elements in the Trevino formula for success: youthful ambition and a couple of timely putts. It was good health—mostly of the mental variety—that eluded me.
I wound up getting an education at Q school after all, for the next 54 holes turned out to be a priceless if predictably humbling experience. My double-bogey-bloated scores rose and fell and rose again in concert with my Advil intake and spasmodic mental lapses: 83-77-80.
What most surprised me and my fellow competitors, however, was how low the scores were—and that they kept dropping rather than rising on Friday, a.k.a. Choke Day. Pappas was medalist with an 18-under-par total of 270. Thirty-one other players started round 4 at four under or better, but it took six under to stay comfortably above the cut. Thirty-three made it, including Bertsch and Budde, who finished seven under. In 1994 the cut line in Stage One at the Ranch had been even par.
My astronomical total left me 38 strokes from qualifying, but I still tied or beat eight others. While spared the embarrassment of being high man—that distinction went to a black-hatted fellow who finished 52 over—I was still feeling pretty low-down. I had spent more than four months and upward of $15,000, and had nothing to show for it except a good tan and a bad back. Then I ran into Dean Sessions, a 45-year-old former college baseball star from Broomfield, Colo., who had busted out of his eighth Q school at 19 over.
Sessions confided that in the seven years since he turned pro at age 38, he had played in 120 professional qualifiers and spent $180,000 in entry fees and travel expenses. He had sold his house and borrowed on his credit cards. Although he had qualified for one Nike and one regular Tour event, his total winnings were zero.
"When you've done this literally over 100 times, people start to think you're crazy," he admitted. "But I'm not giving up. I'm going to keep doing what I have to do to be competitive. The first thing my wife said when I walked in the door the other night was, 'We're on a five-year plan now to work toward the Senior tour. You've been playing against 20- and 30-year-olds. When you get out on the Senior tour, things are going to be reversed physically.' "
Hearing that, I immediately knew how I was going to spend the next seven years of my life.