CALGARY - It’s not-so-affectionately known as ‘Six Days in Hell.’
Matt McQuillan, the soft-spoken golfer from Kingston, Ont., and one of the feel-good stories of last year’s final stage of PGA Tour Q-School, doesn’t make it sound any more appealing.
“All the rumours everybody hears are true. It’s one of the toughest, most gruelling tournaments in the world,” McQuillan said. “To have the chance to play on the PGA Tour is, I think, what everybody dreams of, so to have it all come down to one tournament and it being six rounds, it’s pretty intimidating.
“But if you can somehow treat it as just another tournament and try to stay relaxed during that marathon, I think you have a better chance.”
That’s easier said than done.
After all, the PGA Tour’s annual 108-hole entrance exam, which tees off Wednesday at PGA West Resort in La Quinta, Calif., is hardly ‘just another tournament.’
With the top 25 finishers, including ties, earning full-time employment on the top circuit, the final stage of Q-School is arguably the most pressure-packed golf tournament on the planet.
McQuillan was one of the Cinderella stories of last year’s graduating class, a guy that quit competitive golf for a couple of years and worked as a bartender to bank-roll his pro aspirations, then managed a tie for 16th in his first trip to the all-important final stage.
After earning US$582,933 as a PGA Tour freshman, the 30-year-old is already guaranteed conditional status for next year.
Of the record nine Canadians that will tee off this week at PGA West, McQuillan is the only guy who’s already had a positive result at the event that everybody wants to get to — and hopes they’ll never have to attend again.
Adam Hadwin, the silky-smooth swinger from Abbotsford, B.C., who won the hearts of fans across the country with his fourth-place performance at the 2011 RBC Canadian Open, scored a free pass to the finale after failing to advance beyond the second round in two attempts.
The other Canucks in the 173-man field — Stuart Anderson, Brad Fritsch, Mitch Gillis,
Richard T. Lee, James Love, Richard Scott and Ryan Yip — have advanced through two stages so far and will try to complete the hat-trick in California’s dusty desert.
Hadwin’s remarkable season also included a tie for seventh at the Frys.com Open and a gutsy T-39 finish at the U.S. Open in his first major. In five starts, the 24-year-old earned $440,753, which would’ve put him among the top-150 on the official money list and prompted PGA Tour officials to review their rules and offer an exemption to the final stage.
It’s up to Hadwin to take care of the rest.
“You kind of have to own it,” Hadwin said. “People tell entertainers to go out on stage and own it. I have to take on this persona that I am a PGA Tour player already and just go out there and convince everybody that I am. I just have to go out there and enjoy it.
“The way I’m seeing it, it’s just another top 25 and I’ve already got two top-10s in PGA Tour events this season. Another top 25? That should be easy compared to the top-10s.”
Confidence is one thing all of Canada’s Q-School hopefuls should have in common. Everybody with tee-times this week at PGA West’s Nicklaus Tournament and TPC Stadium courses either already survived two stages or — like McQuillan — was a regular on the PGA Tour last year.
Some would argue there is actually less pressure once you’ve advanced to the final stage, where every golfer is guaranteed at least conditional status on the Nationwide Tour for the upcoming season.
The hundreds of other guys that submitted applications for 2011 Q-School and flunked out in the first or second round would certainly settle for the opportunity to test their mettle on the second-tier tour, but nobody shows up at PGA West aiming to secure a spot in the Rex Hospital Open, Chiquita Classic or any other Nationwide Tour tourney.
These guys are six strong rounds away from earning playing privileges on the biggest stage in golf.
“It’s what you work for all year. Nothing else really matters. When you’re in a position like a Canadian Tour player is, it’s all about the fall,” Love said. “Anyone would be lying if they said they weren’t thinking about (the PGA Tour). I slept for about 45 minutes that last night before second stage because I was thinking about what getting through that would mean. So to have even another level on top of that? I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t going to be thinking about it.
“It’s going to be disappointing if I don’t get my PGA Tour card, let’s put it that way.”
It’s worth noting that a tour card isn’t necessarily a golden ticket.
Led by long-bomber Gary Woodland, only eight members of Q-School’s Class of 2010 managed to keep their full-time status by finishing among the top-125 on the money list.
McQuillan spent parts of six summers on the Canadian Tour, pocketing $114,276 in winnings during that span. He collected more than five times that much in 21 PGA Tour events in 2010.
After seeing the view from the top rung, McQuillan is now trying to follow in the footsteps of Mike Weir, the fellow CanTour alumni who made the grade at Q-School in 1997 but didn’t earn enough as a rookie to retain his full-time card. The now-beloved lefty from Bright’s Grove, Ont., returned to the final stage in 1998, renewing his membership in fine fashion by winning medalist honours at the pressure-packed event.
Weir, who now has a Green Jacket in his closet as the 2003 Masters champ and seven other PGA Tour triumphs on his resume, hasn’t been back to Q-School since.
“Just having the chance to compete week-in and week-out with the best players in the world on some of the best golf courses in the world is, I think, what all of us are trying to achieve. It’s everything you could ever dream of,” McQuillan said. “Once you get a taste of it, you want more and more. It’s definitely where all of us dream of being and if you can somehow manage to stay there, you’ve pretty much got one of the best jobs in the world.
“That’s why, every year, it’s so tough to get out there.”