They are the banished tribe of professional golf, a small, nomadic group of players in search of their homeland. They travel on the fringes of two tours—the PGA and the Nike—eking out a living while trying to chase down a dream. The only certainty in their lives is the uncertainty of not knowing where they'll wind up playing, how they'll get there, what lumpy mattress they'll crash on and whether there will be a check at the end of the week to pay for it all.
Every year 25 players get sent on this wandering journey by finishing 126th to 150th on the PGA Tour's official money list, thereby just missing the full-time exempt status conferred upon the top 125 money winners. If they subsequently flunk out of Q school, the qualifying tournament that rewards 40 players and ties with Tour cards, they are doomed to a year of loitering around locker rooms as nonexempt alternates, praying for calamities.
"You wind up hoping for nasty weather, or a flu bug, or anything that'll keep guys away and get you into the tournament," says four-year Tour veteran Emlyn Aubrey (140th), one of 15 alternates who didn't make it through Q school for this year's Tour. "Otherwise, you do a lot of standing around looking stupid."
Adds 20-year vet Bob Gilder (138th), "It's not the easiest way to do things out here, that's for sure. You better understand how the [alternate] game is played ahead of time, or you're going to wind up beating your head against the wall."
The teeth-gnashing for alternates starts every Friday at 5 p.m., the deadline for exempt PGA Tour players to commit to the following week's tournament. These first dibs for spots in a usual 144-man field go to the top 125, the five leading money winners from the previous season's Nike tour and a handful of other players, such as past champions of that particular tournament. As many as eight players get sponsor's exemptions, and four more slip in through Monday qualifying. The next 47 slots go to the Q-school grads (there were 42 this year because of ties) and the five players who finished sixth through 10th on the previous year's Nike tour money list. For the alternates, deliverance will come only if enough of the above players decide to take the week off.
There is an answering machine that the alternates can check on Friday evenings to learn their fate. "It's like calling the doctor to find out if you have some kind of disease," says Aubrey. The news is delivered in three little words, such as "School plus three." This would mean all Q-schoolers (with the sixth-through 10th-place '95 Nike grads lumped in) squeaked by, as well as the three alternates who ranked highest on the previous year's money list. The alternates who don't get in can still show up at the PGA Tour tournament and hope for hangovers, hangnails or anything else that forces players in the field to withdraw. Or they can play on the Nike tour, if one of its 26 annual events is being held that week.
To get an idea how maddening this all can be, check out the last five weeks of Aubrey's life: In the first week of February he snuck into the bloated 181-man field at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, his first tournament of the year, only to have it washed out. After a three-day trip home to Phoenix to see his pregnant wife, Cindy, Aubrey flew to San Diego on Feb. 7, the eve of the Buick Invitational, because he had moved up to the second alternate. No luck. He spent two days at the tournament practicing and on Saturday flew to the Hawaiian Open, which is so far off the beaten path that everybody got in. His eight days on Oahu went swimmingly, as he tied for 11th and made $25,440.
He showed up on Sunday night in L.A. as the fifth alternate for the Nissan Open, but he expected a number of players to be scared off by Riviera's subpar greens. But by Wednesday afternoon he hadn't moved, and 5 p.m. that evening was the deadline to commit to the San Jose Open, the Nike tour's season opener, which was starting the next morning. Aubrey made the call, hopped a puddle-jumper that night to San Jose and wound up 21st, cashing in for $1,705. That brought him to last weekend's Inland Empire Open in Moreno Valley, Calif., the second stop on the Nike tour, where he finished 22nd.
A bitter footnote: Had Aubrey shaved one measly shot off his score in Hawaii, he would have tied for sixth, which would have guaranteed him a spot in the Nissan Open, because the top 10 finishers of each tournament are exempt for the next week's event. Also, the additional money and potential winnings in L.A. would have given him a great shot to make the Bay Hill Invitational next week, which takes the top 70 current money winners. "It's fun to look back and see how much one shot cost me," Aubrey says, deadpan. An easygoing, agreeable fellow, he can laugh at the craziness, but not all the time. "Sometimes you can't help but be embarrassed with your situation," he says.
Gilder knows the feeling. A six-time winner on Tour, he has never before been on the outside looking in. Gilder blew into L.A. from his home in Oregon on a Wednesday night, when he moved up to first alternate, but he too was stranded on the sidelines. He spent Thursday morning sheepishly waiting in front of his locker, feeling out of place and forgotten. "It was a rude awakening," says Gilder. "It really hit home how quickly things can be taken away."