Arriving at the TPC Scottsdale Champions Course on Sunday morning, November 13th for the first practice round of the final stage of Qualifying School was a lot like walking toward a funeral gathering. The mood was very quiet. Golfers were getting their clubs to the range at the crack of dawn, as it was “getting down to business time” for the 78 finalists.
Because I did not finish in the top 30 on this year’s money list (57th), I was a contestant. Tour School was even more significant for me this year after I didn’t finish in the top 50, which would have given me conditional status for 2012. I finished 45th on the money list in my first year (2010) which got me into many events. In fact, that status combined with sponsor’s invites allowed me to play in 17 tournaments in 2011.
But finishing in the top 75 on the 2011 Money List did exempt me into the finals of the Qualifying Tournament. Only the top 5 would secure a card to play in 2012. And it’s not even a full card, it gets you automatically into tournaments during the first half of the year, but then your performance to that point is ranked as a reshuffle takes place with all conditional players and past tour winners who are not exempt. The shuffle is for the top 5 earners. This reshuffle was critical for me in my first year on the Champions Tour and gave me status for the 2nd half of 2010.
A rare storm came through Phoenix that morning and all the golfers were huddled in the small clubhouse. Having studied the storm early that morning, I knew there was a good chance that the second wave of showers could dissipate and just skirt by us, so my pilot’s eyes were peeled to the sky. Sure enough, after the first round of heavy showers went through, I could see my prediction was to come true. Players had begun spreading rumors that it wouldn’t clear up until noon, but I knew differently. Thus, I was the first to go off on the 10th tee, enabling me to play alone for nine holes.
I prefer to play serious practice rounds by myself. I can get so much more done. My caddie, Cliff, had flight troubles getting into Phoenix and was unable to do his homework the day before. Cliff and I use the “Aiming Point” system for analyzing and reading greens. Cliff’s job is to measure the % slope of every conceivable hole placement on the greens. This takes him about six hours to complete. Cliff had almost finished the first nine before the storm, so he joined me on the back. While he did his work, I began my short game practice and could discuss with him where the hole placements would be. I had played my first Champions Tour Q-School on this very course two years before and had even retained the actual hole location sheets. While on my recent trip to “The Oven” at Nike Golf’s plant in Fort Worth, Texas, I was given a couple of white cups that look like nothing more than a rubber doily. I would place these cups on the green where I thought the cups would be placed, then putt to these locations. On some putts, I would chart the break. I was on the course all day.
During the 2009 Champions Tour Q-School final stage, held at the same course, I shot 71-74-75-67–287 total (+3) and finished T52nd. In the final round, I had my first ever professional hole-in-one with a 7-iron on the 3rd hole. On a personal note, I felt my game had advanced tremendously in the past two years, so I was curious to see what I could shoot. I am always cognizant of finding ways to measure progress. Here was an opportunity to make a good comparison as the forecast was for perfect weather, just as it was for the 2009 tournament.
The next day I was again on the course at the crack of dawn. I was hoping to get my clubs re-gripped but discovered that Mike Bertha and the Champions Tour equipment van had not made the trip to Scottsdale. But since most of my equipment was brand new, it wasn’t much of an issue. I had a brand new set of Nike VRII irons in the bag with a slightly softer shaft than I had been using the past couple of years. I also had a brand new Limited Edition Nike driver that was producing some great results in practice. Prior to my visit to Fort Worth I had been struggling with finding the right driver. Additionally, I had been doing ball testing in Florida the previous week and had settled on the soon-to-be-released 2012 Nike *X ball. I’m really excited about this new ball and found that it was equally long to the 2011 Titleist Pro V1x off the tee but slightly shorter with the irons and much more consistent. Why care about getting more distance with the irons? Consistency is what counts. So, it was an easy switch.
Again on the second day of practice rounds, I used the formula of being the first to tee off and it worked. I snuck out by myself. I bet I was only one of five players all day who were able to play 18 holes by themselves. When I made the turn, my former college teammate, Keith Clearwater (last year’s medalist at this event), and our friend Jeff Coston were teeing off the first hole and caught my eye heading to the 10th. Keith started walking towards me when I politely told him with all the work I’m doing, I won’t be able to hold my pace of play and stay with the group in front. He’s a good friend and completely understood, but I still felt bad. But this is Tour Q-School – not the typical week. It’s a totally different mindset heading into the tournament. The pressure each of us faces is unlike any other event. So much more is riding on one’s performance. This is about securing your job for the coming year, not just a paycheck for the week.
Day one of the tournament arrived. As was anticipated, the range was quiet from chatter. Even in the breakfast room, you could hardly detect a conversation being had. Tension levels were high. Everyone was focused on bringing their “A-game” to the course. I was paired with Ken Martin and it was ironic that he and I were paired together for the final round the last time we played the tournament in 2009. “What are the odds that we would be paired together back-to-back rounds”, I asked Ken? Whatever the odds, it was strange. Even stranger was the fact that Ken is in the process of becoming one of our certified Impact Zone Golf instructors and is a close friend of Master Instructor Eric Wilson. Ken and Eric were both present at the IZG clinic in Louisville I did this year during the 2011 Senior PGA Championship. Back in Scottsdale, Ken and I both played well. I shot 72 on the par 71 layout, due to going 0 for 8 in putts 6 to 15 feet in length, and a bad break on the 18th hole which led to a double bogey. I was tied for 52nd place, just where I finished after four rounds in 2009.
Tom Lehman invited me over to his house with a few of our friends for dinner. Gary Hallberg was staying in Tom’s guest quarters. Jeff Coston, Ted Schultz and I joined Tom and Gary for dinner. It was a great evening and I really enjoyed touring Tom’s beautiful home. I loved all the framed pictures in the garage, especially the Golf Digest laminated story with his picture striking an iron just after impact. Tom later told me that he always looks at his divot after every shot, because there is something to learn from it. I couldn’t agree more!
The second round started like the first for me with more pars. I was paired with Per-Arne Brostedt, a Swedish touring pro who also leads a big golf academy in Stockholm. “I remember watching you hit balls in the 1982 New Zealand Open”, he said. “Then when you wrote ‘The Impact Zone’, I had to get it. It’s a great book!” Per-Arne got off on an early roll, birdieing two of his first five holes. Twice he remarked about my shots as, “that’s the Impact Zone”. I found myself enjoying his light, friendly way, but then realized I’ve written this book with so many of my secrets in it that golfers around the world are now using to beat me. It was the “kick in the pants” thought I needed. Finally, on my 6th hole of the day, I made a 12-foot putt for birdie to go one-under for the day and even-par for the tournament. I struck a beautiful 4-iron on the next hole but missed the 6-footer. I was clearly not scoring, but hitting the ball great. I made the turn in two-under after a two-putt birdie on my 8th hole. Then it happened. As my old caddie, Willie Peterson used to say, I went “flag hunting”. I struck a pitching wedge for a tap-in at the 10th, made a 7-footer at the 12th, two putts for birdie at the par 5 13th, nearly holed a 4-iron at the 15th and another tap-in for birdie at the last. Easy 64! I had made the best comeback of the day, passing 39 players and moving into a tie for 13th. But again, I didn’t make many putts. Per-Arne was genuinely excited for me and happy about the round I had shot. We talked afterward about him coming onboard as an IMPACT ZONE™ instructor.
I shot a good third round but again struggled with putting. The 68 actually lost a little bit of ground to the leaders as the course played pretty easy. I knew I would need to “go low” in the final round to get one of the top five slots. I set my sights on another 64.
The winds picked up and the hole positions were really tough in the final round. After going one over on the first eight holes, I needed a spark. I hit a really good 5-wood on the par 5 9th into the middle of the green, leaving a 45’ putt up and over the tier. I made it for an eagle – the first long putt I made all week. After good birdies at 13 and 15, I was on a roll. On 17, I hit two really good shots on the par 5 and had a 15-footer for an eagle. I read it perfectly and made my second eagle of the round. Now I was faced with the difficult 18th. I had already made a double-bogie, a bogey and a par on the hole in earlier rounds and had hit three what I thought were perfect tee shots (one kicked into the bunker under the lip). With water left, a big penal bunker right, and a left-to-right helping crosswind, both Cliff and I agreed that 3-wood was the right club. I got just a bit out of rhythm and drew my tee shot up the left edge of the fairway. It kicked left and into the water. After a good drop in the rough, I was faced with a 199 yard 2nd shot off a hooking lie to a far left flag over water. I hit one of the best shots of the week to 40 feet right of the flag, and hole high. The putt broke five feet with perfect speed but just braised the left edge. I screamed, as I had a feeling it would be the putt needed to make the top five, though there were no scoreboards. I later discovered that I could have used my iPhone to access www.pgatour.com to view the live leaderboard. It was probably better I didn’t know. After years of competing, you gain a sense of the importance of certain shots and holes. It really shouldn’t change your shot strategy. I knew that the proper strategy for the 3rd shot at 18 was to the center of the green, not at the flag.
After lunch and what I later discovered was too much caffeine from the iced tea, I was taken to the playoff. I totally forgot about caffeine in iced tea! I missed two short putts on the first two holes and ended up 3rdconditional for the first half of the year. That probably won’t help me get into many tournaments, but it might help persuade some of the sponsors to extend me one of those rare exemptions. It will also put me high on the alternate list every week in case players are late to withdraw. Having played all the courses now, I’ll be prepared to tee it up when needed. Also, I am automatically in every Monday qualifying for each open event as a result of being a past Champion on the PGA Tour. This year, the board voted to increase the starting number of qualifying spots from 4 to 7 and increase the size of the field from 78 to 81. It’s a step in the right direction to give more players access. Compared to the PGA Tour with field sizes of 144 to 156, the Champions Tour with such smaller field sizes makes it very difficult for those who are not “life exempt” to stay on the Champions Tour. How many tournaments I play next year will be predicated on how I play. One thing for sure, I’ll be training hard when I’m not out running IMPACT ZONE Custom Golf Schools!