Tour's qualifying school is likened to a difficult walk through a furnace

December 08, 1991|By George White | George White,Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, FLA. — -- ORLANDO, Fla. -- Donnie Hammond hasn't forgotten the nightmare that bedeviled him long after he had left the golf course. Neither has Mark McCumber. The PGA Qualifying Tournament does this to a man, stretches the mind to the maximum during the six days the golfer is enduring this walk through the furnace. Even when you think you can finally rest, you still can't.

Hammond is having to go through the ordeal again this week, nine years after he earned his tour card in 1982 by setting a Q-school scoring record (14-under par) that still stands. Because he wasn't one of the top 125 U.S. Tour players on the 1991 money list, he finds himself at Grenelefe Resort in Haines City, Fla., trying to regain the right to play PGA Tour events again in 1992.

Hammond, who lives in Orlando, had gone through this three times before, "and each time it was the most pressure I could imagine, not just in golf, but in anything I've done in life," he said.

"Each time before, I would start getting dreams about three months before the school began, dreaming I was playing in the school. I remember a couple of times in those dreams I would have only played three holes, and already I was 5 over par. It was such an emotional dream I would wake myself up. I'd sit up, realize I was in my bed, the tournament hadn't even started, and I'd shout, 'Great! I'm back to even par!' "

In other dreams he would be standing in horror, taking a drop after hitting a second shot out of bounds. Those dreams, though, can't match McCumber's horrors.

He failed to qualify his first three tries. Since finally gaining his card in 1978, he has won seven times and earned nearly $3 million. For years, though, even after he won the Players &L Championship in 1988, memories of tour school would haunt him.

"It stemmed back to the year I finally made it," McCumber said. "I went into the sixth day only one shot out of the lead, and I knew I could probably shoot an 82 in that final round and still make it.

"For years I would replay that entire tournament in my dream -- except that in the last round, in the dream, I would shoot that 82. I would walk to the scoreboard in disgust and fling my scorecard down without even bothering to sign it.

"Then I would go out to the parking lot and sit in the trunk of my

car with my head in my hands, totally disgusted with myself. Then someone would come up and ask how I was doing, and I'd say, bitterly, 'I shot 82 to finish 2-under.'

"Then the person says, 'Hey, 2-under is going to make it!" At that point I go tearing back to the scoreboard, scrambling around to try to find my card. Then I'm running up to Labron Harris, who ran that tournament, telling him that I haven't left the property yet and begging him to let me sign my card.

"Then I wake up. So tell me tour school didn't affect me."

Tour school has a profound effect on every man who ever dreams of making professional golf an occupation. It only happens once a year. This year, almost 900 sent in applications, and those who are still clinging to hope had to survive district and regional tournaments just to get to this six-day finale. The top 45 and ties get to play in PGA tournaments next year. Another 70 get to play in Hogan Tour events, the satellite tour.

For the other 750 or so, failure can be devastating. For some it means having to go out and find a job. For some, it means another 11 months of trying to survive on the mini-tours.

"It's unlike any other pressure you will ever feel playing this sport," says Gary Koch, a 16-year veteran who has experienced just about every kind of pressure golf can offer. "I've represented the United States on Walker Cup teams, world amateur teams -- I've won on the tour, and I've been in contention in major tournaments.

"The difference is, at tour school you're playing for your future, for your livelihood. It's your one opportunity, and you don't get another shot at it for another year."

For those who miss, the sudden attack of self-doubt can make a man wonder why he ever tried in the first place. "It makes you feel like, 'You're not good enough, son, for this line of work,' " McCumber said.

Orlandoan David Peoples went through tour school nine times. Six times he earned his card only to fail to earn enough money to keep it the following year. Three times he failed in qualifying, and each time it knocked the emotional props out from under him.

"You invest all of your life into something, since you were a kid, then you can't get through the school. Now you're trying to be honest with yourself -- 'Well, should I do something else? This is what I've been working on all my life, to be a professional golfer, and this one doggone tournament is keeping me from doing it.' "

It's especially torturous to the men who play great for five rounds, only to blow it on the final 18 holes. They still talk about a young Bob Tway who ballooned to an 83 on the final day in 1982, missing his card by two strokes.

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