PALM DESERT, Calif. -- Six rounds. That can be the difference between playing for an average purse of $6 million per per week and scratching out a career somewhere in Morocco.
A dozen years ago in perhaps the most memorable of q-schools (or heartbreaking, depending on one's perspective), Tim O'Neal was on his way to becoming the only other African American on the PGA TOUR not named Tiger Woods. Then he triple bogeyed his 108th and final hole at PGA West to finish one stroke short of securing a TOUR card.
That same year, Joe Daley's 5-foot putt on the 17th hole (of the fourth round) infamously circled the cup, went all the way down and popped back out. He finished with one stroke too many, slammed his hat in disgust and never made it back to the TOUR (though he later found success on the Champions Tour, winning the Constellation SENIOR PLAYERS Championship this year).
O'Neal, whose career was once financed by actor Will Smith, is still chasing his dream. The 39-year-old won in Morocco earlier this year after two years out of the game and hopes his recent success will draw the attention of another backer. Whether it does or not, he won't get to the TOUR via q-school, at least not the way he could have.
O'Neal didn't qualify for the final stage of q-school this year, which marks the final year the top 25 players (and ties) will receive a PGA TOUR card. Beginning in 2013, they will earn only Web.com Tour status.
The next 50 players plus ties after the top 25 this year, meanwhile, earn Web.com Tour cards. Anyone outside the top 50 receives conditional status on the Web.com Tour.
Roland Thatcher is nearly as famous as O'Neal and Daley when it comes to q-school lore. In the final stage in 2001 at Bear Lakes Country Club in Jupiter, Fla., Thatcher, needing par on the last hole, flew the green with his approach shot and watched as it bounced off the cart path and onto the roof of the clubhouse.
You can't make this stuff up. So perhaps it's fitting the final q-school as we know it will play out a couple of hours east of Hollywood, where Billy Horschel is one of 172 players trying to author a magical ending (or at least trying to better his place in the pecking order) beginning on Wednesday.
And with potentially fewer starts available in 2013 for those who don't finish in the top 25 this week due to the Fall Series being folded into the FedExCup potion of the schedule, there's even more pressure to get a card this year.
"The pressure is what you make of it," said Horschel, who was a promising player out of the University of Florida a few years ago before he was sidelined with a wrist injury. "But if you think about it and make it a bigger deal than what it is, that's when you get nervous. Then you're thinking about it on the course and not focusing on what you need to do."
That said, a year on the Web.com Tour might prove more beneficial to some. Or at least less nerve-racking.
"I can safely say I hate q-school," said Jerry Kelly, who chose to use a career money exemption rather than return to the final stage of q-school, from where he's never received a card. "I hate it with a passion. I thought about it this year, but why would I want go back there and put myself through that? The romanticism of it? It's a miserable place."
Kelly's point wasn't a knock on q-school as much as it was an endorsement for a year-long stint on the Web.com Tour and the growth a player could achieve there. It certainly made a difference for Thatcher. Looking back, he knows it was a blessing in disguise.
"I was not ready to go on the PGA TOUR," Thatcher said. "Had I gone to the PGA TOUR I would've been beat down pretty good. Most likely I wouldn't be playing right now.
"It took me three-quarters of a year on the Buy.com (now Web.com Tour) to find my footing. It was the best thing to happen to me."
To Thatcher's point, there's travel to adjust to, setting your own schedule, learning to manage time on and off the golf course, among other variables.
Not that reaching the PGA TOUR from the Web.com Tour is any easier, at least in Paul Stankowski's eyes.
"The Web.com Tour is not easy to finish in the top 25," said Stankowski, who is in the field this week at PGA West. "For years I thought it was easy to finish in the top 125 on (the PGA TOUR). It's like Stanford, it's hard to get into but once you're there it's easier to stay.
"But the Web.com Tour should be the avenue to the PGA TOUR."
And it will be. But that's for next year. In the meantime, there's one more memorable chapter to be written in the history of q-school.
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