Q-School rookies ready for PGA Tour debuts

Padraig Harrington made four bogeys and a birdie for a 73.
Fred Vuich/SI

Only in PGA Tour Qualifying School could a former pizza deliveryman somehow earn the right to compete in the same field as Ernie Els and Adam Scott. It’s just part of what makes the dawn of a new season on the PGA Tour so intriguing — all the new faces ready to take a shot at stardom.

This year, 12 Q-School graduates join 16 of the Nationwide Tour’s best as rookies on the PGA Tour. Some rooks are fresh out of school, others have toiled on mini-tours for more than a decade, grinding along toward the ultimate golden ticket: a PGA Tour card.

Each rookie, of course, has taken his own unique journey. Brian Vranesh, 31, worked a laundry list of odd jobs while keeping his PGA Tour dream alive.

“I never went to four-year college; I’ve always just worked,” Vranesh says. “I’ve worked at golf courses. I’ve delivered pizzas. Six months ago I was waiting tables at a restaurant. Whatever I had to do to make a buck.”

After firing a 65 in the sixth and final round of Q-School, Vranesh earned his card on the number. With the Tour season set to kick off, he appreciates his opportunity to play with the big boys and — with any luck — earn a big paycheck. “Hard work pays off. I think it was all a blessing,” he says, his voice cracking. “It’s good to finally make it.”

Around the same time Vranesh was trucking calzones, 27-year-old Leif Olson played four years on the Duke golf team — and completely burned himself out. After graduation he quit golf cold turkey and searched for a new career.

“I went back to school, and I took everything,” Olson says. “I even took the LSAT because I was thinking about law school. Later I took my MCAT. I had to decide if I wanted to try golf again, or try med school.”

Last year Olson played in a few Gateway events, rediscovered his passion for the game and hit the practice range as much as possible between MCAT cram sessions. He entered Q-School with a clear head and a game that was rounding into form at the perfect time.

“It was a good challenge, and probably the most exciting last round I ever played,” he says. “The three years I took off were really beneficial to me. Now I’m enjoying it again.”

Olson and Vranesh are just two of the rookies primed for their PGA debuts, most of which are set to take place at this week’s Sony Open. Can any of these players stare down the world’s best? Before you roll your eyes, remember last year, when four rookies — Andres Romero, Chez Reavie, Dustin Johnson and Marc Turnesa — all hoisted trophies and earned more than $1 million.

In the days leading up to their PGA debuts, we caught up with each of the 12 PGA rookies who qualified at Q-School. They are listed here in order of finish at the tournament:

Derek Fathauer
Age: 22
Hometown: Jensen Beach, Fla.
Last year: Finished his collegiate career at Louisville, helping the team to a 10th-place finish at nationals. Didn’t turn pro until Q-School.
His Words: “I always thought I could get there … I feel like I’m as good as anyone else out there. Not to sound cocky, but you have to believe you belong. As soon as I can get comfortable, then all I need to do is think about golf.”

James Nitties
Age: 26
Hometown: Newcastle, Australia
Last year: Laid-back Aussie and former “Big Break” contestant competed full-time on the Australian Tour, and also Monday-qualified for a handful of Nationwide events.
His Words: “I was always a guy who partied too hard. When I was ready to get serious, I had to give all that away. Now that I actually got to the PGA Tour, it’s all been worth it. I want Tiger to get back so I can play with him. I’ve never seen him play before. I’ve never played in a PGA Tour event, and I’m looking forward to the whole experience.”

James Oh
Age: 26
Hometown: Lakewood, Calif.
Last year: Played a few Nationwide events, but competed mostly on the Golden State mini-tour. Also worked as a golf instructor.
His Words: “I’ve worked extremely hard the last two years, and to have this opportunity is really something else. I would go out, play a Golden State event in the morning, drive home, and give a lesson that evening. I did that pretty much for two years. This is all quite a change.”

Webb Simpson
Age: 23
Hometown: Raleigh, N.C.
Last year: Graduated from Wake Forest after winning two NCAA tournaments. Played in several PGA and Nationwide events. Best PGA finish was a tie for 31st at last year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational.
His Words: “One goal I’d love to accomplish is Rookie of the Year. I’ve also thought about making it to Atlanta. It’d be great to get in on some of that FedEx Cup money (laughs).”

Matthew Borchert
Age: 31
Hometown: Orlando, Fla.
Last year: Played full-time on Hooters Tour.
His Words: “My biggest obstacle has been myself. I’ve gotten in my way every chance I’ve had. My wife, family, my teachers have helped, but the only person who could push me over the edge was me. And now I did it.”

Troy Kelly
Age: 30
Hometown: Bremerton, Wash.
Last year: Played on the Canadian Tour and Golden State mini-tour.
His Words: “It’s going to be a new experience. You watch these guys on TV over the years, and I can’t wait to get out there and compete with them. When you play mini-tour golf, no one sees anything. It’s going to be fun to hit good shots and have people watching.”

Tyler Aldridge
Age: 24
Hometown: Nampa, Idaho
Last year: Made six cuts in 23 starts on Nationwide Tour. Began working with a new swing coach, and improved at the end of ’08, culminating with a big week at Q-School.
His Words: “Last year was a little bit of a struggle, but I learned a lot. Before last year I hadn’t traveled much at all. I was making my own flights, getting rental cars, figuring out where to stay. I’ve got someone helping me this year.”

Gary Woodland
Age: 24
Hometown: Topeka, Kan.
Last year: Bounced between events on the Hooters Tour and Nationwide Tour.
His Words: “Obviously I want to be in contention every week. The main goal is to get better. On the days when I’m not playing well, I just need to find a way to get it in the hole [so I can] stick around on the weekend.”

Brian Vranesh
Age: 31
Hometown: Scottsdale, Ariz.
Last year: Played full-time on the Gateway Tour, winning twice.
His Words: “My number one goal would be to win, but for sure I’d like to come in the top 100 on the money list. I’d like to come into that fall series with everything under control, and free-wheel with nothing to worry about.”

Aaron Watkins
Age: 26
Hometown: Mesa, Ariz.
Last year: Played mostly Phoenix mini-tour events after losing Nationwide Tour card at the end of 2007. Competed in three Nationwide Tour events in 2008, best finish was T11 at the Preferred Health System Wichita Open.
His Words: “I don’t want to be one of those guys who’s struggling those last few weeks. I’d like to make it to Atlanta (site of the FedEx Cup-ending Tour Championship), then you don’t have to worry about making the top 125.”

Leif Olson
Age: 27
Hometown: Denver, Colo.
Last year: Played in a few Gateway events, also took the MCAT while pondering a career in medicine.
His Words: “I knew I’d have to play well [in Q-School], and I did. Now I definitely want to do a lot more than just keep my card. I’m hoping to finish top 50, but I want to get out there and see how I’m feeling.”

Wil Collins
Age: 30
Hometown: Rapid City, S.D.
Last year: Competed full-time on the Canadian Tour.
His Words: “Obviously I want to win. That’s been my goal at every level. One short-term goal is to get as comfortable as I can as quickly as possible. That’s probably going to be the biggest hurdle.”

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