Oh, What a Feeling

A quirky course, some bad breaks and the threat of tornadoes were just a few of the things I dodged while advancing through the first stage
Mark Baldwin
Mark Baldwin
November 2, 2023

Q school is the ultimate test, a place where dreams are realized, futures are forged and more often than not, hearts are broken. With three stages to navigate, each becoming progressively more competitive, the journey is a months-long marathon. You can’t win Q school at the first stage–although the medalist at each of the 13 sites this year gained PGA Tour Americas status for next season–but you can lose if you don’t make it through.

I’ve successfully navigated all three stages twice in my career, and leading into the first stage this year, I’d been competing regularly, building the kind of steady results that inspire confidence. The first two rounds of the 72-hole tournament, however, were anything but inspiring. 

Walking down the 9th fairway during the second round at Walden on Lake Conroe in Montgomery, Texas, I was 1 over par through 35 holes, but the short par-5 offered a chance to end the day at level par or better. I was a few shots off the projected qualifying number, and I ached to reach the tournament’s halfway mark with a birdie. 

My storytelling caddie, Ryan French, took my driver after I hit a hard tee shot that soared on the wind down the left side of the narrow fairway. We walked behind Wayne Lee, a young Korean with flowing black hair and a loud salmon-colored shirt, who was always trailed by a small vape-pen cloud. 

With his strong swing and easy-going demeanor, Lee looked like a contender on the first hole of the tournament, but the round got away from him quickly. When he made a triple-bogey 8 on the 10th, he waited patiently on the next tee. Our other playing partner, who had made seven on the 10th and was trying to figure out who had the honor, asked Lee what he had made on the previous hole. Lee grinned and said “eight” with surprising amusement. 

I hit 9-iron into the 9th green in the first round and imagined having a similar number in the second. One good swing and I’ll have an eagle look, I thought. 

As we walked closer to where I expected my ball to be, I only saw grass. Beyond it, the treeline came into view, and at the base of a large oak, a ball was stymied against its trunk. I cringed. One of my playing partners had hit his drive on the same line, opening the possibility the ball–completely screwed–-was not mine. 

Another ball appeared right next to the first. Two balls rested hopelessly against the giant tree trunk, and you could tell from 50 yards away that neither was playable. 

Suddenly the rain came—a cold, pelting deluge that filled the fairways with puddles. Ryan and I huddled under our umbrella behind another tree with a clear view of my ball and a sense of foreboding and disbelief. 

“I just can’t catch a break today,” I said. 

Between having played two balls off of roots, finding a cavernous divot in the middle of a fairway, and not having a swing from a fairway because of low-hanging branches–all in the same round–the misfortune built into absolute annoyance. The rain kept coming down and my perspective grew as dark as the sky.  

Because it was raining so hard, play was temporarily suspended. Sensing inner turmoil, Ryan began talking about which unplayable option gave me the best chance to save a par. It’s time to move on to the next shot. After deciding two club lengths left of the tree gave me the best opening to get a punch shot near the green, the rain tapered and the rules official said we could resume play.

I refocused, hit a low hook through a gap in the trees up next to the green and chipped it to a kick-in distance, saving par.

Mick Jagger could have been talking about golf when he sang: You can’t always get what you want but if you try sometimes, you’ll find, you get what you need. 

Survive and advance is the Q-school mantra. I had escaped the round with minimal damage, and although I was four strokes outside the projected four-round cut, I knew if I could just remain patient, birdie opportunities would come. 

Ryan and I returned to our Airbnb, a small condo that had recently been built in the middle of a trailer park. We were sharing it with fellow professional Jhared Hack and his caddie, Hunter. The place looked welcoming in the online pictures, and while it was comfortable (as long as you didn’t selflessly volunteer to take the jagged pull-out couch, as Ryan did), there was no mention of it being located in a mobile home park. 

Nothing against trailer parks. My dad did a stretch in one when I was in college. They just tend to be loud, filled with free-roaming rabid animals and not especially safe in a tornado.

Hack and I go way back. You don’t get through Q school twice without having the right people around you, and he has been one of them. Peaking during Q school requires significant preparation, and the two of us have pushed each other to new heights. 

Hack, now 34, has played in PGA Tour events but never never made a cut. He won dozens of mini-tour events running away, once shot 57, gained and lost Korn Ferry Tour status a handful of times, and in recent years was so utterly lost, so incapable of being competitive, that some Korn Ferry golfers refused to play him for money in practice rounds because they knew it wasn’t a fair fight. 

But he hasn’t given up. He and I seem to be using a rope-a-dope strategy as we take on the professional game.  

Hack opened with rounds of 69 at Walden and was near the top of the leaderboard at the halfway point. The iron extraordinaire and Florida native felt at home on the narrow holes, tiny greens and gnarly Bermuda grass. Hack went to bed earlier than most great grandparents each night and slept like a well-nursed baby. For a guy who openly talks about battling the driver yips, he seemed very much at ease.

I got off to a slow start in the third round with one birdie and one bogey through eight holes. Returning to the par-5 9th, I hit a much straighter tee shot than the day before, but my approach found a greenside bunker. I played the delicate shot to perfection and made birdie. 

I started to feel “the zone”–that tunnel where confidence and calm are harmoniously married–when a 30-footer found the bottom of the cup on 10. 

The 11th might be the hardest par-5 I’ve played in competition. The 582-yard double-dogleg around water demands a tee shot of no more than 250 yards. Depending on how brave you’re feeling, the second shot is played to a landing strip of fairway anywhere from 185 to 225 yards, setting up a third shot over water to a peninsula green. On this day the wind was howling straight into the second and third shots, and I had driven the ball behind a tree in the rough. So I punched my second shot to just under 200 yards from the flag. Now I was facing the most intimidating shot on the golf course. 

Not wanting to allow extra time for anxiety to build, I stepped in with a 4-iron and flushed it. The strike was so good it warranted an aggressive club twirl. 

“Best shot of the week,” I said as the ball took flight. When the ball landed in the middle of the green some 30 feet from the hole, it felt like I had fire in my blood. 

“How good was that?” Ryan exclaimed. 

I nearly holed the putt and then flagged my tee shot on the following hole, a par-3, to near gimmie distance. 

On the final green, I hit an 8-iron to just under 25 feet from the hole. The skies darkened again, threatening to unleash a storm, and the rules officials began to gather with air horns. I rolled the putt perfectly down my line and unleashed my first fist pump of the week as the ball dropped. A minute or two later, play was suspended. I signed for a 67. And while most of the contenders would have to return in the morning to complete their rounds, we’d have the afternoon to relax and prepare for the final round. 

Hours later, we were alerted to a tornado warning on our phones. The GPS system on our rental car said, “Seek Shelter Immediately.” As we drove through the trailer park, I realized this might not be the best place to ride out a tornado. 

Ryan, Hack, Hunter and I huddled in a small closet in the bathroom, sharing stories of past brushes with twisters. Ryan recalled how he and his family once sheltered in a bathtub. When it was safe to emerge, a church on their street had been blown away. That story didn’t exactly put us at ease.

Later that evening when the turbulent winds dissipated and the rains subsided, I asked Hack what kept him going as a professional golfer. 

“I’m still really good at golf,” he said. “I can still do this. I just forget sometimes.” 

Perhaps the realization that we are all on borrowed time helped ease the tension the following morning. 

Because of the suspension in play, the range was packed with players. Hack, now tied for the lead, had a spot on the range. I waited behind him and watched him finish his warmup. I told him to bring it home, and based on the resolve in his response, I had a feeling he would. I stepped into his spot when he departed and continued building his shallow divot art, trying to absorb the pure strikes of the tournament leader. It worked. 

When a 10-footer for birdie fell on the 2nd green, there was a sigh of relief. Everything was in working order and on track. Then a right-to-left 10 footer on the 3rd green dropped. And when the 20-footer on the 4th disappeared, I had an early cushion. Although there were many challenges ahead, I knew this was going to be my day.

I didn’t hit every shot perfectly, but I felt prepared for every situation. At 4 under after another birdie at the 8th, I had the luxury of playing conservatively on the closing nine. The score from my final nine in the third round and my opening nine in the fourth was 8 under, a dream stretch for any round. But Q school? It couldn’t have come at a better time. 

I had parred the menacing 11th each of the first three days, but in the final round I short-sided myself with my third, over the cart path and into the rough. But the lie was favorable and the contact clean. The ball landed softly on the fringe and trickled to two feet from the pin. On a par-5 where the field’s “other” scores outnumbered birdies, 21-18, across four rounds, I had picked up nearly two shots on the field. 

I went with 2-iron off the tee on the 13th–a hole I’d hit driver on the first three days–and then hit a perfect 8-iron to about 10 feet. When the sneaky left-to-righter fell, I was 9 under for the tournament and convinced that I only needed to keep breathing to advance. 

As Ryan and I made our way to the narrow 430-yard home hole, I told Ryan, “I’m thinking of hitting driver here.” 

He was quick with the comeback. “Hit whatever you want off this tee that doesn’t have a headcover,” he said. We laughed, cutting whatever tension remained. 

My trusty 2-iron produced a flared cut into the right rough. Luckily and to my caddie’s credit, I didn’t make that swing with a longer club. That left me without a clear line at the green. Thankfully, there was no need to attempt a hero shot. I laid up short of the water that fronted the green. After my third shot was safely on dry land and I was sure not even a tornado could keep me from advancing to the second stage, I put my hand on Ryan’s shoulder and thanked him for his support and friendship. 

After the bogey putt was holed, we let out some emotion and took a cathartic walk to the scoring area. Once our score was official, Ryan and I recounted the day happily as we walked to the rental car, knowing we get to do it all again soon at the second stage. 

We scanned the leaderboard. Hack was having a brilliant day himself, turning the determination from his morning range session into a 67, which would get him to 16 under for the tournament, earning co-medalist honors. 

Our weeks began in a trailer park, and Hack’s ended with status for next season on PGA Tour Americas. I’m moving on, too. 

Four rounds down, and now I’m eight rounds from a PGA Tour card. Only at Q school. There’s quite simply nothing like it.

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