Thankfully, there were enough early signs of success to keep that pressure from building too much. Plus, my parents knew how hard I was trying—up at 6 a.m. every day to get in two hours of practice before work.
Those were lean years but not hard times. I learned a lot from my coworkers and made great friends. I met all kinds of people and learned how to relate to everyone. And I met a lot of guys who worked their way up, either as players or as head professionals.
I also witnessed the opposite. Guys who didn't have a lot in terms of golf ability but had plenty of financial resources. And I saw—and still see—players who are trying to make it rack up massive credit-card debt without working to supplement their golf incomes. It's hard to see people who won't bite the bullet to make ends meet. I learned the value of a dollar.
I was always the turtle in the race, and it wasn't until 2004—seven years after turning pro and only a year removed from the bag rooms—that I made it to the final stage of Q school, my third attempt. People don't realize that between the entry fee and expenses, you're looking at $10,000 or more to play in that tournament. It's a big gamble. I wound up with limited Nationwide tour status and had a few good rounds on that circuit, but then I injured my hand, which set me back for more than a year.
I returned to the pro shops, making $9 an hour answering phones and folding sweaters. This was probably my low point. Kathryn and I had just moved into our new home, where I could look out my back window and see people playing golf. The game was all around me, yet I couldn't take part in it. I could swing a club without pain—but if I tried to hit a ball, the impact felt as if someone were taking a hammer and nail to my palm. To see elderly people knocking a ball around when I was in the prime of my life and unable to do what I loved, all because of a hairline fracture in one little bone in my hand, was torturous.
After surgery, I returned to the Nationwide tour in '07, where I tied for second in the National Mining Association Pete Dye Classic. Yes, I'd had those good moments on the Florida mini-tours, but I wasn't sure how indicative they were of playing with seasoned pros, traveling and everything else that goes into building a career on the PGA Tour. So as crazy as it sounds, after a decade of chasing the dream, that Pete Dye Classic was the first time I started to think, Maybe we can make a go of this.
If my name rings a bell, it's likely because I was the "journeyman" who shared the lead after the first round of the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. Though I faded back into the pack—my moment in the sun was somehow eclipsed by the Tiger Woods--Rocco Mediate playoff—I experienced the pressure cooker in its entirety. I had my first big press conference. I hit shots while the voice in the back of my head said, I wonder what Johnny Miller and Dottie Pepper thought of that swing. You may not care, but you know they're saying something, because you're leading the tournament and you're not supposed to be.
I must have taken something from the experience because two weeks later I won my first Nationwide tour event, the Ford Wayne Gretzky Classic. Still, I finished outside the top 25 on the Nationwide money list and ended the year without my PGA Tour card.
I won again on the Nationwide tour in May 2010 and spent the rest of the season inside the top 25, but by the time I had reached the season-ending Tour Championship, I was near the bubble. I played reasonably well for 3½ days but then made five bogeys coming home to shoot 41. There were still several players on the course who could have knocked me out of the top 25 and out of the big time.
Part of me thought, The universe is good, and we've done enough this year for it to work out. But another part of me knew that if you give things the opportunity to go wrong, they generally do. I walked off the 18th green feeling that the opportunity had slipped through my grasp, and I was sick to my stomach.