I sat in my red 2011 Camry in the parking lot at the Windance Country Club in Gulfport, Miss., trying to swim through waves of frustration. I had just shot a two-under-par 70, an average score for a Monday qualifier on the Web.com tour, and now I wasn’t going to play in the Chitimacha Louisiana Open. I was a thousand miles from home, and I asked myself, Where do I go now? What do I do? I had no answers.
I couldn’t let go of the shots I had wasted. All the hard work I put in since earning conditional Web.com tour status in December, and here it was April and I still hadn’t played in any big tournaments. It’s one thing not to succeed in tournament play. It’s another not even to have the opportunity to compete.
I consider myself as mentally tough as anyone — it’s one of my strongest assets — but at that moment, it felt like golf was passing me by. My eyes began to water.
My emotions momentarily got the best of me because this was a frustration that was at five months and counting. The problem is of my own making, in part because I finished 100th out of 150 players at the Web.com tour qualifying tournament. It hadn’t helped that just before Q school I was laid low by the flu for three days. A pecking order is established based on the final scores at Q school — my number, as we players call it — and my number hasn’t been good enough to get me into a tournament.
Because I had next to no status, early on I tried a few 18-hole, four-spot qualifiers on the PGA Tour. At the Farmers, I shot seven under on the second nine but fell one short. I knew I needed to jar a wedge shot from 120 yards for eagle on the last hole, but my approach hit the pin and lipped out. C’mon, man! In Puerto Rico, I shot a solid 68 in brutal conditions. Fifth, again.
On the next Monday, I had a 20-footer for birdie to get into a playoff for the last spot at the Valspar Championship. I missed it along with a subsequent meaningless par attempt. I played with Greg Chalmers, a gritty Australian who won the playoff for the last spot. I was paired with him in the Honda Classic qualifier, too, and he shared a few putting tips with me after the round. In between those qualifiers Chalmers, 41, teed it up in the World Golf Championship event at Doral. He got in there because he was the PGA Tour Australasia Order of Merit champion last winter. It goes to show you how strong the fields are for these Monday qualifiers.
I am 28. There are hundreds of players like me trying to gain a foothold on the Web.com or PGA tours. Hundreds more play in mini-tour events that can’t guarantee you’ll recoup your entry fee (often $1,200 or more) even if you make the cut.
I see a lot of the same guys at the same events and the same discount hotels and the same Chipotles. We’re trying to avoid reenacting that scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall in which Jason Siegel’s character shows up alone at the hotel restaurant and asks for a table. Jonah Hill, playing the seating host, says, “You want, like, a magazine or something? It’s gonna be boring if you’re just sitting by yourself.”
But I’m not alone in this. I got married last October, in the month or so between the first and second stages of Q school. (If you’re a tour player, all dates on the calendar revolve around the golf schedule.) Marriage is supposed to settle you down, but for Kristine and me, it has done anything but. She is in her final year at the University of Pittsburgh, gearing up to graduate from the school’s acclaimed department of nurse anesthesia. I headed south to work on my game on Jan. 5, while she stayed home for school.
When I’m on the road, we typically talk three times a day or more. A bunch of shorter calls work better than hourlong conversations. We video-chat as well. When away from home, my primary goal during the 3½ years we’ve been together is to show that I’m thinking of her. She is a special woman. One of our favorite songs is “Konstantine” by Something Corporate. Coincidentally, the song was written about a girl named Kristine, so it’s always been special for us. A line in the song says, “I always catch the clock, it’s 11:11.” So whenever one of us notices the time is 11:11, we text each other. It’s one more little thing we do to remind each other that we’re a team even when we’re not together.
Kristine learned early on that my job wouldn’t be a cakewalk. A few years ago I was playing in the 36-hole U.S. Open sectional qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, and she was trudging along in my gallery. It was a hot day, and midway through the second round she turned to my mom, Betsy, and said, “I should have dated a bowler.”
You have to travel if you want to play the tour; luckily, I have trained for that since childhood. I was fortunate enough to tag along on some of the countless trips my dad, Gary, has made as a golf writer. It was those events that sparked my desire to make it to the PGA Tour. As an All-America at Marquette, I played 48 college tournaments, so I had plenty of practice traveling during that period too.
I think back to a tweet from July 2012: “Tonight will be the 8th different house/hotel I’ve slept at in the last 10 days, spanning 7 cities, 6 states and 2,700 miles.” I deal pretty well with the travel, but it’s disturbing when you wake up in the middle of the night and you don’t know which city you’re in.
Let’s go back to that parking lot in Mississippi. Maybe the travel got to me, maybe it was just the feeling of being alone and stranded. I was signed up for the Shell Houston Open qualifier on the following Monday, but I didn’t want to waste an entire week waiting around. So I started driving north. Where to? I wasn’t sure; I just knew I had to move. I called my dad, and he pulled out a road atlas so we could discuss options. I had about three hours to make up my mind. Louisville was the fork in the road. Once I got there, I could veer northeast toward Pittsburgh with a gnawing feeling of defeat. Or I could steer northwest toward Chicago, where I would stop in at the Bettinardi putting studio for a tune-up and go on to Milwaukee and a session with Tim Grogan, my coach at Marquette. If I chose the latter, at least I’d feel like I was pushing forward.
I opted for the Windy City. The choice was easy, but the drive wasn’t. I had just crossed into Illinois when a tire tread came flying off an 18-wheeler directly in front of me. I heard a loud bang, then a thump-thump-thump that wouldn’t stop. I pulled off the highway into a Speedway station. The black undercarriage protector, a hard plastic shield, was dragging on the pavement. (It brought back memories of the time I hit a raccoon and damaged my bumper while driving down I-77 in Virginia one night.) I bought a roll of duct tape — never leave home without the stuff! — and, in my best MacGyver-like effort, taped it together. I made it to Chicago that night and stayed at my college roommate’s apartment.
At a Toyota dealership the next morning, a service rep said I was looking at $1,200 in repairs. Or he could simply remove the protector. I went with Option B. The guy made quick work of it and refused to charge me. I tipped him $10 and threw the pieces in my trunk.
A few days of hard work in Chicago and Milwaukee rebooted my enthusiasm. I flew to Houston for the Monday qualifier, and while I struck the ball well, I didn’t hole enough putts to qualify. So I flew back to Chicago to pick up my car and then made the all-day drive to Pittsburgh.
Even though I was feeling good about my game, I still went to see Joe Boros, the director of golf at Treesdale Golf and Country Club. He has been my instructor for 15 years, and he has a knack for keeping things simple. We worked on my short game follow-through and my full-swing takeaway. It’s always positive to have something to work on, and Joe is great at that.
Meanwhile, the remnants of my undercarriage protector are now on the floor of my parents’ garage. They’re more like reminders than souvenirs. I recently watched Whiplash, the movie in which a jazz ensemble director tells the story about how legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker didn’t get motivated to reach his potential until a drummer threw a cymbal at him after a disappointing solo.
A cymbal, a raccoon, a tire tread — they’re all just obstacles to overcome. So I’m pushing on. I’ve got the drive, I’ve got the confidence, I’ve got the game and, oh yeah, I’ve got an extra roll of duct tape at the ready.