In what is my favorite tournament of the year, other than the majors, the 108-hole marathon for the final 25 PGA TOUR cards begins for the last time on Wednesday at the PGA West Complex. They will utilize the Nicklaus Tournament Course and TPC Stadium Courses, which are the same two as played in 2011. Normally, the venue rotates between California and Florida, but no such switch this time.
It’s hard to predict Q School because there are so many agendas. Last year 8-under earned a card, which means a player could have gone the whole week without breaking 70 and still made it through. Because of that, steady veterans with Q School battle scars are always in play. (See Marco Dawson last year.) There are also tons of young bucks that have never played on the PGA TOUR and have little or no Web.com Tour experience that are happy just to have a seat at the table. These guys would be ecstatic to leave California with full Web.com status, and that’s probably what’s best for them.
Here’s a breakdown of the categories of players you will see, along with what their goals likely are:
- Established PGA TOUR players – Guys like Heath Slocum, D.J. Trahan and Rod Pampling have won tournaments on the big stage and made plenty of money, but find themselves back in Q School for the first time in years. Typically this goes one of two ways. They either wake up and blitz the field like Billy Mayfair did in 2010 when he won the thing, or they have a bad few rounds and rely on past champion or 126-150 status along with sponsor’s exemptions. They almost never miss by a little bit. Anything other than a top 25 finish means nothing to them and expect them to W/D if they don’t have a chance at any point.
- Less established guys coming off the 2012 TOUR – Some of these guys finished inside the top 150 and have a safety net similar to those in the category above. That also provides them with full Web.com Tour status. For those 151 or worse that aren’t past champions, they are back to fighting for their professional lives. These pros would find some solace in finishing in the next 50 after the top 25, giving them plenty of Web.com Tour starts. Don’t expect any W/D’s from this crew like you might see from others with some status.
- Journeymen – You would recognize their names from cups of coffee on the PGA TOUR and plenty of starts on the Web.com Tour over the years. Some are old and some have yet to crack 30, but they always seem to bounce anywhere from the mini tours to the PGA TOUR. A great example of this is a guy like Danny Ellis. Not much is going to rattle this group because they’ve been in both better and worse predicaments than they are currently facing. Most of these guys would take a top-75 finish and know that they have a home on the Web.com Tour, but don’t be surprised to see a few from this group sneak up the leaderboard early and hang on late.
- Amateur stars– Some of these guys have a few battle scars and others have none. Generally these guys play pretty fearless golf and do well. Ben Martin did it in 2010. Billy Horschel is another good example in 2009 and 2010. This year’s group will include guys like Patrick Cantlay and Kevin Tway. A guy like Cantlay can’t fathom the scenario where he doesn’t finish inside the top 25 because he’s never failed at anything. While they don’t think anything less than a top 25 is good, it could be in their best interest to learn how to win on the junior circuit.
- International stars – It seems like this group grows every year. Seung-yul Noh was one of last year’s. This year we see Ross Fisher, Raphael Carbello Bello and Alexander Noren among others. They generally aren’t intimidated by the field, but sometimes don’t adjust well to the U.S. These guys aren’t interested in a year on the Web.com Tour.
- Web.com grads – Another growing trend is guys who have already graduated from the Web.com Tour coming back to try and improve their number to start the year. This year, that’s incredibly important since the schedule will be compressed. I think this is a smart move for anyone outside the top 15. Chances are they will end up in Q School again. This is a chance to practice for that in a stress-free environment. Who knows, they may even improve their number.
- Rookies and other unheralded pros – These guys are chasing the dream, and all of a sudden it has caught some traction. At worst, they will get a couple of starts on the Web.com Tour in 2013 with preferred Monday qualifier options. Heck, that’s better than most of this group has ever seen. But what if one of them actually busts through and snatches a card? It happens to someone every year. John Huh and Charlie Beljan anyone?
While nobody is ever a cinch to navigate the final stage, I’ve identified 13 guys that have an excellent chance. I didn’t start with 13 as a goal. That’s just what it ended up being. In no particular order:
- Billy Mayfair – I mentioned above that the past champion and veteran of the TOUR went out and won Q School in 2010. Add to that, he made his last six cuts on the PGA TOUR in 2012 before stumbling at Disney in the final week. He finished the year 128th on the money list to narrowly miss getting to skip this little cocktail party.
- Heath Slocum – He won The Barclays a few years back, yet finds himself in Q School. This is his first time here since 2000, when he tied for 56th and then aced the 2001 Web.com Tour with three wins and a battlefield promotion. Ended the season making seven of his last nine cuts and was 142nd on the money list.
- D.J. Trahan – Back to Q School for the first time since finishing T11 in ’04 to earn a card. He was 132nd on the money list, finishing the year by making his last three cuts and finishing tied for fourth in the penultimate event at Sea Island. Confidant guy with above-average ball-striking ability and a putter that fails him often, he’ll need to avoid big numbers but should make enough birdies to move on.
- Patrick Cantlay – Q School is mostly mental, and he’s confident he will advance and likely will. The only hesitation is that he played TOUR events much more successfully as an amateur than he has as a pro. The pressure of earning a living could be wearing on him a bit.
- Bobby Gates – Finished 126th on the 2011 money list and promptly jumped out of the conditional category with a T3 at Q School. He’s back again thanks to a 137th money list rank and missing his last three cuts, but I’ll trust that he responds similarly this time around PGA West.
- Billy Horschel – He’s two for three in Q School’s, with the lone miss last year. He’s been consistent in 2012 and that’s all you need in the six-round final stage. Making 15 of 17 cuts, and his last 11, I like his chances to throw up some 69s and 70s early and coast the rest of the way.
- Chez Reavie – He didn’t graduate in his last trip to Q School in 2006, but did enough to reach the Web.com Tour and earn a card that way in 2007. Since then, he’s won on TOUR and played in the TOUR Championship in 2011 before falling on rough times to start 2012. He finished strong, making eight of his last 10 cuts, and can fall back on 126-150 status at 129th on the money list.
- Patrick Reed – He qualified for a ton of TOUR events this year in Monday Qualifiers, so why not go ahead and knock out all of 2013 this week? This may be my most risky pick, because his success has been in 18-hole sprints and he’s about to try and tackle a 106-hole marathon. Still, a couple of 65s will more than erase a few 74s if it comes down to it, and it just wouldn’t seem right for him not to make it through.
- Richard H. Lee – I loved this guy late in 2012. His stats were off the charts and he cashed checks in six of his last seven starts to end up 138th on the money list after a dismal start. He also advanced (albeit barely) from this site last year to earn a card. I see him as a threat to win the tournament.
- Ross Fisher – Recent European Ryder Cupper who easily skated through second stage, may be the class of the entire field. He has the length to shorten par 5s considerably and likely won’t feel all that much stress this week.
- Morgan Hoffmann – He’s one of those guys that graduated from the Web.com Tour and looks to improve his number. The game came easy to him this year, and he will have a chance to freewheel.
- Russell Knox – All he did down the stretch of his rookie year was make his last eight cuts, including finishing 13th or better in three of his final four events. Bottom line, he stepped up when it mattered to gain conditional status at 143rd and his fourth top 13 in five events would mean full status for 2013.
- Camilo Villegas – He struggled all year but found a spark late, notching each of his last five cuts and scratching out a 144th finish on the money list.
Tomorrow I’ll check back with some other guys I like, as well as a few dark horses to keep an eye on.