Big Names at Golf’s Q-school Torture Test

If Lee Janzen could hit his drives as far as he throws his irons, maybe he would not be at Q School this week.
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Palm Springs, California, is host to a number of tournaments, and even a major in the case of the LPGA, but you've got to love the juxtaposition of the retirement community's two season-enders: The Skins Game, where all that matters is the one-liners, and the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament finals, where you can count the laughs on no hands. The desert's two-tournament, 11-day stretch after Thanksgiving is the golf equivalent of Jerry Seinfeld warming up the audience for Henry Kissinger, or Steve-O for Stephen Hawking.

Speaking of Steves, Steven Ames won the Skins Game. Fred Funk tried the old remote-controlled ball trick (ha!) and Fred Couples shot around 61 or 62, then spoke volumes on the decline of the silly season staple when, ruminating on his long and successful run, he said blithely, "The very first one was [Jack] Nicklaus, [Arnold] Palmer, [Gary] Player and [Tom] Watson. This is a little different group than those guys, to say the least."

Alas, by then we already knew that, the first hint coming not when John Daly donned a black cap with orange flames but when he strode off the tee after hitting a shot and, perhaps forgetting he was wired for sound on ABC, announced, "I'm going to pee."

At Q school, "I'm going to be sick," is more like it. The gag-fest begins today and will play out over six rounds (that's 108 holes if you are counting), ending on Monday. Notably absent will be former teen-age whiz kids Ty Tryon, Casey Wittenburg, Henry Liaw and Spencer Levin, all of whom failed to get past the second stage.

Finalists can at least can fall back on a spot on the Nationwide tour if they come out on the business end of the typically mean calculus this week: Of the 163 players who will tread lightly across PGA West's Stadium and Nicklaus Tournament courses, only the Top 30 plus ties will earn Tour cards for 2007.

As ever, there are intriguing names like Sal Spallone (the former TCU Horned Frog who played in the 2005 U.S. Open) and Mike Capone, who ought to get together and write screenplays if whole golf thing doesn't work out. Ron Philo, Jr., better known as LPGA star Laura Diaz's brother and sometime caddie, has made the finals for the first time since 1993. He's never played on Tour. There's two-time U.S. Open champ and eight-time Tour winner Lee Janzen, Tiger's 2004 Ryder Cup partner Chris Riley, and three more guys with multiple Ws: Carlos Franco, Jonathan Kaye and Duffy Waldorf.

Most interesting, however, are the 57 rookies who find themselves in the finals for the first time, catnip to agents, caddies and manufacturers looking to catch a rising star. Even devout dimpleheads knew little of J.B. Holmes when he shot 24-under-par to win the Q school (and a cool $50,000) last December, but everyone knew all about him by the time he was done capturing the FBR Open (and $936,000) on CBS less than two months later. Ditto for the guy who tied for 9th at Q school, Will MacKenzie, who won the Reno-Tahoe Open in late August. Mike Weir is a former Q school winner.

Scouting talent is a hobby with timeless appeal, and all eyes this week will be on two players who, perhaps not coincidentally, will tee off in the same group on Wednesday, at 8:10 a.m. on the Stadium Course: Jason Day and Anthony Kim. (Nick Malinowski, who caddied for Kris Cox for a year on the PGA Tour, is the third member of the threesome.)

In America, Kim is the more known talent of the two. He grew up on the PGA West course and played for La Quinta High before embarking on a successful college career at Oklahoma. He won the Q school's second stage at McKinney, Texas, which came as no surprise after he finished second in his first PGA Tour start, at the Valero Texas Open in September, and backed it up with a T16 at the Southern Farm Bureau Classic.

Ron Levin, who caddied for winner Todd Hamilton at the 2004 British Open, will be on Kim's bag, as he has been since the Texas Open.

"He's a prodigy," Levin says. "He hits it straight, he putts and chips well and he's out there for one reason, which is to win. It doesn't hurt to be in Palm Springs this time of year, either."

Pundits have a similarly lofty assessment of Day. The diminutive Queensland, Australia, phenomenon turned pro at the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee, in late July, and fired a 68 and a 64 over his first two rounds. (He finished T13.) He contended at the Reno-Tahoe Open a month later before fading with a 71 on Sunday to drop into a tie for 11th place. The winner of the 2004 Callaway World Junior Championship, Day looks to spring fully-formed onto the Tour from the seemingly bottomless well of talent that also gave us Geoff Ogilvy, Adam Scott and too many other Oz talents to name here.

Will he fulfill his promise? Will Kim? Or will the Q school pressure-cooker spit them out onto the Nationwide circuit in 2007? Unlike the last 18 holes beamed into our dens from Palm Springs, courtesy of ABC, the next 108 (on The Golf Channel) will tell us a lot, no remote-controlled balls needed.

Cameron Morfit covers the PGA Tour as a Senior Writer for GOLF MAGAZINE. You can read his column every Monday on GOLFONLINE. E-mail him your questions and comments at [email protected]