The final round of the second stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament is probably the most stressful 18 holes in golf. Those who survive and advance to the final stage have the opportunity to play themselves onto the PGA Tour, comforted by the knowledge that if they fail, they are still guaranteed a spot on the Nationwide tour. But to flunk out at the second stage of Q school leaves a player in golf's no-man's land, without a card on either tour. � On Nov. 20 in St. Augustine, Fla., 72 players endured the exquisite torture of the fourth and final round of the second stage. The low 19 and ties would move on. The round was played under an ominous sky in the eerie silence of a tournament with no fans or leader boards. One by one the players straggled off the course and gathered at a scoring area next to the clubhouse, where their fates would be written in permanent ink. They displayed the palpable camaraderie of brothers in arms, and beers and tears flowed freely.
A couple of hundred yards away one player stood on an otherwise empty driving range. It is unheard of to hit balls after the final round of the second stage. When David Gossett requested a bucket, the surprised staff at St. Johns Golf & Country Club had to scramble to produce a batch of bright-yellow striped balls that were as hard as rocks. No flags had been planted on the range, because the grounds crew hadn't expected anyone to visit, yet Gossett was undeterred. He methodically worked his way through his pile of stripers, calling out imaginary targets. His coach and caddie for the week, Rob Akins, occasionally placed a hand on Gossett's shoulder or tweaked his knee with the butt of a club. They were clearly working on something specific, but as Gossett lashed ball after ball, this practice session had the feel of self-flagellation. Gossett had just shot an 80 for a four-round score of 293 (five over par). He had needed a 279 to move on to the final stage of Q school.
The 80 put an exclamation point on the shocking disintegration of Gossett's game. Everybody's All-America at Texas, a U.S. Amateur champ and a PGA Tour winner in only the fifth start of his rookie year, Gossett has always been considered a can't-miss pro. Instead, he has arrived at a crossroads at the tender age of 25. During the 2004 season Gossett missed the cut in 23 of his 25 starts, including 19 in a row to end the year. He broke 70 only once in 57 rounds, and his scoring average of 75.01 was the worst on Tour by nearly a shot and a half. With $21,250 in earnings he finished 245th on the money list, dooming him to the second stage.
So here he was in St. Augustine, hitting ball after ball in a light drizzle, oblivious to the raised voices from the scoring area that drifted toward the range. Watching him alone at the range, it was impossible not to wonder if this desperate practice session signaled the end of his career or the beginning of his rebirth.
Gossett has always had a clear vision of his future. Growing up in suburban Memphis, his home course was the TPC at Southwind, site of the FedEx St. Jude Classic. When the Tour came to town, he would put in long days as a spectator, but it was not idle hero worship. Gossett was making a careful study of his future peers. Even as a preteen the short, skinny kid with oversized glasses stalked success with an almost religious fervor. Charles Howell, a longtime rival and friend, dates Gossett's reputation as a range rat as far back as their first meeting, at a Future Masters event when they were 12. "I remember my dad saying, 'Watch how hard this kid works,'" Howell told SI in 2001. "It seemed as if at every tournament we were always the last guys out there practicing."
Gossett's parents, Pam and Larry, were just as dedicated. "They were there for him 100 percent, every round of every tournament," says Dick Horton, the president of the Tennessee Golf Association. "The Gossetts were a tight-knit family that gave David incredible support." Gossett's discipline, determination and intensity were imbued by Larry, who flew jets while in the Air Force and is now a pilot for FedEx. Larry is a typeA personality who has been deeply involved in the athletic careers of his two children. David's younger sister, Joni, earned a golf scholarship to Vanderbilt in 2001 and quickly carved out a reputation similar to her brother's. Says Vandy teammate Veronica Yatco, "Joni would always get the most out of every practice, every drill. She loved the challenge of trying to get better."
In his own pursuit of excellence David constantly sought the best counsel. In high school he split his academic years between the David Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and two schools in the Memphis area. While in Bradenton he worked with Jonathon Yarwood, a Leadbetter disciple who now coaches Michael Campbell and the Song sisters, Aree and Naree. In Memphis, Gossett was taught by Akins, the longtime instructor to David Toms, among others. Gossett would continue using both coaches throughout college and during his first two years on Tour.
It was hard to argue with Gossett's formula for success at Texas. As a freshman in the 1998--99 season, he was the Big 12 player of the year, freshman of the year and student-athlete of the year, as well as a first-team All-America. The summer before his sophomore year, he stormed to victory at the 1999 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach. In one of the most dominant performances in the tournament's history, Gossett defeated Sung Yoon Kim 9 and 8 in the final.
The victory earned him a spot in the 2000 Masters and the U.S. and British Opens, and after soaking up those experiences, he turned pro that summer. With his maturity and polished all-around game, Gossett was often compared with another Longhorn, Justin Leonard. In the fall of 2000 Gossett hoped to follow Leonard's example by using the maximum of seven sponsors' exemptions to earn enough money to crack the top 125 on the Tour money list and avoid Q school. But Gossett fell on his face, missing the cut in all seven tournaments, the first indication that he could not simply will himself to success in the big leagues as he had at other levels of golf. At 5'10" Gossett did not have the game to overpower the longer courses on Tour, and at the top, plenty of others worked as hard as he did. Nor did he fare any better in the final stage of the 2000 Q school. He did not have a round in the 60s--although he shot the first 59 in the event's history--and failed to secure a Tour card. But in 2001 he began piling up top 10 finishes on the Nationwide tour until a sponsor's exemption came through for the John Deere Classic in July, only his fifth PGA Tour start of the year. Gossett played the best golf of his career that week, shooting a flawless final-round 66 that included a must-make four-footer on the 72nd hole. With the one-shot victory came a two-year Tour exemption.
Gossett had a solid sophomore season in 2002, finishing 100th on the money list with $676,308. The highlight was a tie for second at Westchester during which Joni served as his caddie, something she had done occasionally during his career. The Gossetts charmed a national TV audience with their banter. "She definitely helps [on the course]," David told reporters. "She reminds me to have fun and not take myself so seriously."