I really don't feel much different today from the way I fell when I was 18. All a guy needs to keep going in tournament golf is good health, the same ambition he had when he was younger, and maybe two or three putts that fall at the right time.
—LEE TREVINO, at age 40, to Herbert Warren Wind
I whipped out my Big Bertha driver and paced back and forth across the sun-scorched 16th tee box at The Ranch Country Club in McKinney, Texas, with a southwestern wind howling in my ears and Trevino's reassuring words echoing in my brain. It was early in round 1 of Stage One of the 1995 PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament. I had just won the honor for the first time that morning, a distinction I hadn't achieved in a four-day tournament for a quarter of a century.
Back in 1970, at the know-it-all age of 18, I had resigned my No. 1 spot on the Harvard golf team to become a muckraking journalist instead of a trap-raking Tour rabbit and vowed to never again set spikes on a country club. I had made this dubious decision on the otherwise fine spring day when the golf coach informed me that The Country Club in Brookline would revoke our team's playing privileges unless I got a haircut. The very next day all the colleges at Harvard went on strike to protest the war in Vietnam, and all final exams, athletics and haircuts were canceled.
Now, at the short-haired and farsighted age of 43, having played an average of less than 18 holes per annum in the intervening 25 years, I had resolved to recover my lost youth—and my scratch handicap—by embarking on an intensive training program under the tutelage of some of the country's top teaching pros with the goal of making it all the way to the PGA Tour at long last. I was acting out a fantasy shared by every middle-aged amateur from Peoria to Perth who has ever birdied two holes in a row.
And to the undisguised surprise of my Q school playing partners, both of whom were born the year I quit college golf, I was giving it a pretty fair shot so far. After three-putting for a bogey on number 10, our opening hole, then faltering again on 14, I had birdied the par-3 15th by whacking a wholehearted five-iron to 10 feet and slamming my sidehill putt into the back of the cup. That put me at one over for the day with three potential birdie holes left on the back side. Number 16, the hole at hand, was the trickiest but also the most tantalizing. A dogleg-right par-5 flanked by a man-made lake that ran from tee to green, it was listed at 549 yards on the scorecard, but you could easily reach the green in 2 if you were brave enough to slide your drive to the corner.
Unfortunately, I had plenty of time to second-guess my strategy. One of the members of the threesome in front of mine suffered from a unique disability that compelled him to Hop down on his belly to line up any putt over three inches in length. As a result he and his group were quite literally playing at a snail's pace. But the threesome in front of them was even slower, and the belly Hopper could not hit his second shot until the 16th green cleared. My playing partners remained cool. Shane Bertsch, a sallow-complexioned, 25-year-old Nike tour rookie, was accustomed to 5½-hour rounds. He merely flipped his Oakleys up and down and chortled. Ren Budde, a long-hitting 24-year-old with light brown hair, tan slacks and an earth-toned edge that came from banging around the Texas barbecue circuit, shook his head and rolled his eyes every time the belly Hopper missed a putt.
"I just wish he'd make a few so we don't have to stay out here until dark," Ren said, sighing.
As the wait continued, I gulped two more Advil. The existential eeriness of the Ranch provided a perfect backdrop for Q school, the most inappropriately named contest in all of sports. Though sometimes described as the Tour's version of the bar exam, Q school is more like a country-club-hopping outdoor insane asylum with inmates who have handicaps of two or under and pay entry lees of $3,000 each in hopes that they can get in, get out and never ever be forced to return again by retaining their PGA Tour player cards. The odds of starting at Stage One and making it through Stage Two and the Finals (252 holes) all the way to the big show are roughly comparable to those of hitting a one-iron through the eye of a needle. In 1994, only 11 players from the original 1,000-man field at nine Stage One sites around the country accomplished the feat, the most in recent memory. The oldest man to do it for the first time was journeyman Jimmy Powell, who won his card in 1980 at the age of 45.
In my quixotic quest to follow in his Foot-Joys, I had spent the previous four months competing in various amateur tournaments, a Hooters tour event and a Nike tournament Monday qualifier. I was quickly reminded that golf is not a noncontact sport. Before, during and after each round, I suffered injuries, ranging from a pinched nerve in the C-6 area of my cervical spine to a hip pointer and a badly strained psoas, as well as an assortment of calluses and blisters too mundane to mention.
As Q school approached, I kept trying to whirlpool away my ailments and continued to search for tips that could take my game over the top. With the help of Eden Foster, head pro at the Maidstone Club in Easthampton, Long Island, I struggled to bring my notoriously quick tempo down to Tour-average speed. Then I flew to Houston for a series of lessons with the legendary Dick Harmon, who prescribed a destraightening of my downswing.