Around this time each year, the PGA Tour opens up its doors to any duffer with the price of admission and some good rounds of golf under his belt. This most democratic of professional sports really does provide an answer to those who say: "I can do that!" The PGA Tour response is: "Show me." Of course, the chances are very slim that you actually could do that -- only a few successfully qualify -- but dreams occasionally come true.
Qualifying School (or "Q School," as it is generally known) began this year in mid-September with "pre-qualification" for some entrants at five golf courses nationwide, followed by the first qualifying round in late October at thirteen courses. The list has been narrowed substantially for the second qualifying round at six courses next week. The finals are at Bear Lakes Country Club in West Palm Beach, Florida from Dec. 2-7.
These events are not limited to neophytes. Only the top 125 golfers on the PGA Tour money list maintain their status for another year. Even winners of major tournaments may have to return to Q School to qualify if they fall below the cutoff point. This year, for example, former British Open Champion David Duval is set to play at Q School. Jack Nicholas' son Gary, who played on the Tour for three seasons, did not advance to the second round of Q School this fall. Everyone who plays Q School is a great golfer with 300+ yards off the tee and better putting than anything you have ever seen at your local muni course. The tension is so thick it can be sliced with a 5 iron.
The name Q School is a relic of its earlier purpose. Started in 1965, players who participated in the event actually attended classes to learn how to teach golf. All golf pros back then were expected to be golf instructors as well. That aspect of the competition has fallen by the wayside, but the name remains part of the general parlance.
The PGA Tour has had a long exclusionary history. Before November 1961, the by-laws of the Association limited Tour events to "Caucasians only." The business of the sport had always been the exclusive preserve of wealthy white businessmen. At the behest of pioneer black golfer Charlie Sifford, Stanley Mosk, then attorney general of California and later a distinguished Justice of the California Supreme Court, informed the PGA Tour that it would be illegal to bar professionals from the 1962 PGA Championship at the Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles because of their race. The PGA Tour quickly moved the event to Philadelphia where the "whites-only" rule would not be challenged. Finally, public outrage at the openly racist rule (and some important phone calls made by Attorney General Robert Kennedy) forced the PGA Tour to amend its by-laws. The next legal challenge would be brought by a disabled golfer who did not fit the PGA Tour model of perfection.
While the PGA Tour appreciates the public attention it receives as a result of the periodic battles between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, in the early years of this decade the Tour had to defend its policies before the United States Supreme Court. Casey Martin, a talented golfer from Oregon (and, incidentally, a teammate of Tiger Woods on the Stanford team), brought suit against the PGA Tour when it denied his request to use a golf cart at the final round of Q School. Martin suffers from Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome (KTW), a very rare birth defect that was not diagnosed until he was five years old. The valves in the veins of his right leg never close and blood drains back down his leg when he is standing and walking, pooling in his lower leg and causing swelling. Martin's right tibia became increasingly brittle. The pain was constant, his leg continued to degenerate, and there was no known cure.
Remarkably, Martin was able to drive and putt the ball at a professional level of excellence. The degenerative condition in his right leg, however, caused him such pain that, without the assistance of a golf cart, he could not walk the course and compete in the game he loved.
He brought suit against the PGA Tour based on the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act which, he claimed, required the Tour to make a "reasonable accommodation" for his disability. Golfers can use carts in Q School, but not at the final round. Golfers on the Senior Tour (now called the "Legends Tour") can use carts. Nothing in the official rules of golf prohibits the use of carts. Nonetheless, the PGA Tour insisted it could create any rules it wished, even if the rule meant that persons with disabilities could not participate. The federal courts, however, including the Supreme Court, determined that the federal statute could not be so easily avoided. Martin and others paid to participate in Q School. They were customers at a "place of public accommodation" named in the statute -- a golf course -- and thus were covered by the statute. Walking the course was not a rule at the "core" of the game. (No one ever won a tournament based on the quality of his walking.) In any case, if the purpose of the walking rule was to increase the pain of fatigue, Martin's condition caused him to suffer pain equal to that of an able-bodied golfer walking the course.
Although Martin prevailed in court, the degeneration of his leg meant his Tour days were numbered. He has returned to his home state to coach the University of Oregon golf team. His ultimate triumph created enormous public controversy, probably because there are 30 million golfers in America, all of whom would like some help with their game. For legions of duffers, Martin's cart became a symbol of the "unfairness" they faced because they were not championship golfers.
But it is not too late for you to prepare for 2010 Q School. Oh, it costs $4,500 to step onto the course, so you better practice before laying out the cash. It would be a great story to tell your grandchildren: How you almost became a golf pro.