I was at day 5 of Q-school on Sunday (Story | Scores) at Orange County National to catch some of the action and talk to a variety of players about their experiences and approach to the tournament. One is trying to do something that hasn't been done in 25 years. One is a proven PGA Tour winner with millions in the bank. One is fulfilling a childhood dream after showing great promise as an amateur. One doesn't want to be here and is playing uninspired golf. One is a journeyman who keeps coming back year after year. Here are a few of the stories I've heard. Joseph Bramlett could become the first African-American player to earn his PGA Tour card through Q-school since Adrian Stills did it in 1985. At seven under, Bramlett, 22, is two shots outside the projected number for the top 25. On Sunday he shot a one-over 73 on a very windy and tough Panther Lake course. "Seventy-three is about as good as I could have played today," Bramlett said. "On my back nine I hit only three greens and shot one under."
I asked him how he was handling all the attention around his possible history-making achievement. "It's about time, and a shame that it hasn't happened sooner," he said, "but at the end of the day we're all out here to play golf and put a good number up. And that's what I plan to do on Monday." When Billy Mayfair was last at Q-school, in 1989, players could take carts and 50 PGA Tour cards were handed out at the end of the tournament. "Back then there was no Nationwide Tour," said the five-time PGA Tour winner, who finished 143rd on the money list in 2010. " If you didn't get your card, you had to go to Asia, South Africa or play on the Hooters Tour."
Going into the last day, Mayfair is tied for the lead at 16 under with Ben Martin. I asked him how this pressure measured up against being in contention at a PGA Tour event. "It's a different type of pressure," he said. "But golf is golf. I've been driving the ball well, and my ballstriking is good."
It also helps that he has $18.6 million in career earnings. After enduring a 2-and-1 defeat to Colt Knost in the 2007 U.S. Amateur and a couple of seasons on the Hooters Tour, Michael Thompson, 25, is just glad to be at the finals. At nine under going into the final day, he is inside the top 25. Staying there will earn him his 2011 Tour card. "Unlike a lot of these players I'm actually happy to be at Q-school," Thompson said, "because it's a step up from where I've been playing the last few years. I know that no matter what happens on Monday, I will be playing at the next level."
Thompson says he wasn't ready to be a tour player when he turned pro in 2008. "It was a reality check," says Thompson. "As an amateur I had built up a little confidence that I should be able to compete with these guys, and then I had a letdown. But I wasn't just going to give up."
Instead of getting down on himself, he got motivated to work harder on his game. In 2010 he was the Hooters Tour player of the year after racking up six top-10 finishes, four top-5s and his first Hooters Tour win. Proven PGA Tour players, especially guys who have won out there, bring a little edge to Q-school. Having to go through the PGA Tour's version of Survival hurts their pride. I got that feeling as I talked to the easy-going and amiable Johnson Wagner, who finished 126th on the money list this year, one spot out of the all-exempt 125. That gives him conditional status, ensuring him probably 25 events next year. The 30-year-old former Virginia Tech star got his lone PGA Tour win at the '08 Shell Houston Open. Wagner shot 66 on Sunday, but he's even par for the tournament and would have to go really low on Monday to have a chance of getting into the top 25. Wagner conceded that having a place to play next year has hurt his focus this week. "I had no adrenaline," he told me. "I didn't get nervous one time. That's why I'm playing bad. I had an opportunity here and I screwed up. But I have a new caddie and I'm going to tear it up next year." At the 1991 Macon (Ga.) Open, a now-defunct Nationwide Tour event, I caddied for Geoffrey Sisk, who is playing this week. (I famously dropped his bag during another player's downswing.) When I caddied for him, he was a young player out of Temple in his first year on the new Ben Hogan Tour. Now he is a 45-year-old journeyman who has managed to eke out a living over the last 20 years playing mostly on the Nationwide Tour, helped by his banker wife who is the main breadwinner for the family. Sisk finished 50th on the Nationwide tour money list this season, so he's fully exempt on that tour for next year. He came to Q-school with hopes of getting back on the regular tour, but he felt overwhelmed by Orange County National's Crooked Cat (7,493) and Panther Lake (7,223) courses. "The courses are just too long for me," Sisk says. "When you're hitting hybrids into greens and some of the younger guys are hitting 7-irons into the same greens, it's tough to compete." He shot a three-under 69 on the Crooked Cat course on Sunday, but two opening 75s all but ended his chances of getting into the top 25.