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Inside the Monday Qualifier: Where 1 Swing Can Change Your Week

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SEASIDE, Calif.—The glamor of qualifying for the PGA Tour’s first tournament of its new season began and ended Monday with the scenery.

The challenging Bayonet Course, formerly part of the Fort Ord Army base, sits on prime real estate on a hill overlooking shift dunes and the Pacific Ocean to the west and the glittering jewel of Monterey Bay to the south. It is an intoxicating view, although when the sun first came up sometime after 7, Monterey was invisible, hidden by fog that hovered over the harbor like the top on a convertible. The sun burned it all off within an hour or so and turned this Monday qualifier, where 92 players were scheduled to play for four berths in this week’s Frys.com Open, into a glorious fall day.

Monday qualifiers aren’t anything like PGA Tour events. It’s just guys who are very good at golf playing golf, like any other day of the week at a course. There was no signage, no banners. In fact, the message board near the clubhouse welcomed a batch of lady golfers to The Battle at Bayonet. The ladies played on the adjacent Blackhorse Course in some kind of shotgun-start, battle royale team event and dressed in team colors—one team wore pink and black, another wore light green and gray, a third wore Mets-like bright orange and blue.

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So it was pretty interesting to see the women down on the practice range grinding and warming up along with a posse of PGA Tour hopefuls and veterans. The only way you knew a tournament was in progress was that the Northern California PGA section, which ran the qualifier, had a desk on the first and tenth tees manned by a starter, who announced the player names.

I was there as a caddie in the you-get-what-you-pay-for category, and so it was that at 8:08, with a bright morning sun blazing long shadows across the tree-framed 10th hole, the starter announced, “Now on the tee, from McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, Mike Van Sickle.”

There was no applause and no spectators, just three players, including my afore-mentioned son, and three caddies. Mike got his Web.com Tour card at Q-school last year but didn’t get into any tournaments in the first part of the year so he ended up playing the Mackenzie Tour (formerly known as the Canadian Tour) with modest success.

We came to California by way of Nebraska City, Nebraska, where Mike successfully made it through Stage One of this year’s Q-school on Friday. Since we were halfway across the country already (from our homes in Pittsburgh), he and I flew to San Francisco on Saturday, played practice rounds that day and Sunday in preparation for Monday’s qualifier.

The day before, we had just finished our round when we ran into former Byron Nelson champ Ted Purdy, a long-time friend, who was there for his own practice round. Ted and I commiserated about the changes made to the Bayonet and Black Horse courses when they were redesigned after the Army sold them. It was typical old-guy talk in the it-used-to-be-better-in-the-old-days vein. On our way to the parking lot, Mike and I spotted another former PGA Tour winner coming in. It was Frank Lickliter, wearing shades and camo shorts. Looked good on him.

The odds are long on qualifying on any given Monday and I can summarize our Monday—we’re a team, just like Jordan Spieth and Michael Greller, minus $25 million—in our opening hole. The 10th is an uphill par 5, almost a clone of the adjacent first hole, with inconveniently placed fairway bunkers. Mike killed a perfect and long drive that rolled to the left edge of the canted fairway into a semi-bare lie. (Bayonet is a public course that gets a lot of play and since California has water issues, no course is going to be lush.)

Then he played a beautiful 5-iron shot that drew in right toward the front left pin, clearing the greenside bunker. It left him with a 20-foot eagle putt that broke a little right at first, then left, a bit of a tightrope walk on a ridge. He made a nice stroke, had nice speed and the putt caught some of the cup’s right edge before drifting two feet past. The next putt was quick and somehow, it broke left, the opposite direction it had gone as it approached the cup from the other direction, curled around the cup, dived halfway in and then flipped back out toward Mike. It had looked in all the way. It was a real shocker.

Par isn’t bad at Bayonet unless, of course, you had a two-footer for birdie because birdies are hard-won on this difficult layout.

That was the start of a day of almost, coulda-shoulda golf. Probably still stunned and annoyed, Mike hooked a hybrid into the left rough at the 11th hole, a 90-degree dogleg left with a severely sloped green. He had to play a recovery shot under the overhanging branches of a cypress tree but still clear a cavernous bunker short of the green. He pulled it off brilliantly but the shot curiously didn’t run onto the green but stayed short, leaving him a 75-foot pitch to a pin planted on the northeast corner of what could’ve passed for the banked first turn at the Daytona Speedway. Short version: He holed a sliding downhill eight-footer to save bogey.

The 13th tee is set well back in the trees so, to conserve my bad knee and my lousy feet, I stayed under the trees by the cart path near the up tees. I look down and notice that dirt is moving into piles a few feet away. That’s odd. As I watch, a gopher, an actual gopher, pokes its furry head out of the hole, looking around and apparently unable to see me. It looked exactly like the puppet gopher from “Caddyshack” minus the dance move.

I pointed the gopher out to another caddie, who waited with me, and he grinned. When the players came back after hitting, I told them to take a look. I’ve seen a lot of wildlife on golf courses and plenty of gopher holes but never an actual gopher, since they’re usually underground. So Mr. Bayonet Superintendent, fyi, you’ve got a varmint doing mischief by the cart path in front of the 13th tee. This could mean war. Possibly even an intervention by gopher hit-man Carl Spackler.

The reality of Bayonet golf reared its ugly head at 13. Steven, another player in the group, hit a drive down the right side, where there was a row of cypress trees. It was wide open in the rough and the dirt right of the fairway and no ball. Cypress trees eat golf balls. Their branches are thick and grabby and losing a ball up in a tree is not uncommon. Steven knew it right away and after we made a cursory look, he walked back to the tee to re-load. Midwesterners like me had no idea trees could be so mean.

We got a second dose of this on the front nine when we played No. 3, a par 4 that goes back toward the clubhouse. Since there was a wait, I took a shortcut and walked partway up the hole, staying under the cypress trees along the left side. A guy in the group ahead of us lost his drive to a cypress tree and came back to re-tee. He hit again, down the right side, and as he walked off the tee, his caddie shouted, “Hit another one!” This drive, too, had stayed up in a tree. I think the guy had to borrow a similar model ball from somebody in our threesome. He pulled this drive left and it clanked into the trees about 50 yards ahead of where I stood. This time, it dropped into the rough.

He still had no shot and angrily dropped his back and punched out toward the green. So he was laying 6 somewhere short of the green and needed to get up and down for a quadruple bogey. When that happens in a Monday qualifier, you may as well walk directly to the parking lot.

A birdie at the par 5 18th hole, where we’d seen a wedding reception on the grassy lawn behind the clubhouse during a practice round two days earlier, got Mike back to three over par at the turn. We figured two under par might get in—it did—but there weren’t five birdies waiting for us on the front, just nine pars.

You have to be only a hair off to take birdie out of play at Bayonet. If you’re a little off, you’re fighting to make par. We went over his round later and while he putted mostly really well on some difficult greens, he had one bad three-putt from 12 feet above the hole, a potential birdie that turned into a costly bogey, and he had five lob wedge shots that turned out poorly—two of them bad chips, two of them full swings that either went the wrong distance or the wrong direction, both of which were probably related to mud on the ball.

The threesome posted a pair of 75s and a 78. We checked the scores later and Cory Renfrew shot a 7-under par 65. Count that as one of the rounds of the year. The next best scores were a pair of 69s by Eric Hallberg and Ben Geyer. The fourth qualifier, David Bradshaw, got in at 70, as we figured.

There was a scoring table in the back of the clubhouse restaurant and a leaderboard but otherwise, business went on as usual in the busy grill room. Several tables of ladies—not the colorful ones in the Battle at Bayonet—who were obviously regulars took up a few tables in the lunchroom and were playing Scrabble, I think, or was it Mahjong? I wouldn’t know the latter but they had racks with tiles on them and I didn’t look close enough to see. What’s a seven-letter word for curious? Oh. Curious.

The Frys.com Open is played in Napa, about 150 miles north. We checked online and I was able to use miles and pay a $5.60 service fee to get Mike a seat on a United red-eye flight from San Francisco that night back to Pittsburgh the following morning. So we drove north, checked into a room near the airport and I dropped him off at the terminal, unfortunately causing us to miss the wild finish of the Steelers-Chargers Monday night game.

He flew home and I got up Tuesday morning, took my suitcase to the car and prepared to drive to Napa.

The 2015-’16 is officially in progress. Unfortunately, the Frys.com Open is starting without Mike. I’ll tell Rory he said hello.

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