A Researcher Looks Back Fondly at Q-School

Beyond golf’s four major championships and The Ryder Cup, my two favorite professional golf tournaments no longer exist. The first was what was once known as The Manufacturer’s Hanover Westchester Classic, later the Buick Classic, contested on the West Course of Westchester Country Club in Harrison, New York. This was our only metro New York TOUR stop growing up. The Classic, as I called it, was where I fed my passion for the game. I have fond memories of working in the concessions stand off of the first tee (the 10th for member play) during my college years and walking out of the grounds on Sunday night with more cash in my pocket than some of the competitors did, particularly since one or more spectators would inevitably leave a hundred dollar tip during the proceedings.

Fresh out of undergrad, when I started working, I would take the week off from work so that I could go to the tournament, and particularly enjoyed finding a few favorite journeymen pros to follow during practice rounds, often engaging them in conversation as they learned the West course, and I shared what limited local knowledge I could offer.

On the Saturday before my wedding, my version of a rehearsal dinner was taking interested guests out to the tournament. Without exaggeration, probably half of the people that knew me well, made comments on our wedding video that they couldn’t believe that I was missing the final round to get married. (That’s O.K., when my bride and I got into the limo after our reception, we quickly turned on the radio (no internet) to learn of Billy Andrade’s most convincing victory in his PGA TOUR career, a two stroke victory).

The other event on the top of my list was the Q-School finals. Q-School was the culmination of a grueling process by which aspiring TOUR pros teed it up in a six round tension fest, with fifty prized exemptions onto the PGA TOUR at stake. This very well may have been the most nerve wracking professional golf tournament ever created. Long before there was a Nike/Web.com/Korn Ferry TOUR version of AAA baseball, all of the college hot shots, mini TOUR guys and PGA TOUR “rabbits” who lost their Cards, put it all on the line for one week to determine their future. The lucky fifty got an invitation to the big show. The others basically had to wait a year to try again. Before winning twice on TOUR in the 1980s, and later becoming one of the game’s most renowned instructors, the ambidextrous and legendary Mac O’Grady, tried and failed to make it through Q-School an unprecedented seventeen times! One year when the Q-School finals was held at my home course in South Florida, I remember fending off the utter fear and panic that the wails and tears of my infant daughter near the clubhouse were going to distract the players by exclaiming for anyone in earshot to hear the hopefully empathy drawing fib, “Don’t worry honey, he still has a chance to qualify!” Today, Q-School is just a memory, with all would be PGA TOUR players needing to earn their way on TOUR through a rigorous and lengthy audition on the Korn Ferry TOUR or through exceptional play via sponsor exemptions.

As we prepare to begin the 2019-20 PGA TOUR season, this year’s TOUR rookies and second chance guys, will be more pedigreed and battle tested. Gone, but likely not forgotten are the memories of countless players needing a par, birdie or bogey on Q-School’s final hole, only to blow-up and miss obtaining their card by a stroke. Part of Q-School’s allure was that it was the ultimate instant meritocracy; an amplified and untelevised or streamed precursor to The Big Break. A reality show before there were reality shows.

But for a research geek like myself, Q-School provided another memorable and interesting opportunity to flex my stats muscles. As I relayed in my first column here, my college and grad school days were times where I would often conduct all kinds of esoteric statistical analyses without the pragmatic requirement that a client be paying for my efforts. One of my favorites was what began as an informal exercise around Q-School performance.

The hypothesis behind my analysis was the rather intuitive notion that if a would be TOUR player were able to show their “cajones” during the pressure of Q-School, he would be able to withstand the same on the big circuit. So, for several years I went back and identified those players who earned their cards on the number by going low on the final day of Q-School. I don’t recall the specific scenarios or screening criteria that defined “going low”, but my memory suggests that it needed to be at least four or five under for that final round to be considered. At the risk of being anticlimactic, I no longer have the empirical results of my analysis…a strange anomaly for someone like myself who prides himself on being a pack rat. However the primary insight remains…A large percentage of the players who met my “go low to make it by one” criteria, indeed became first time winners during their rookie seasons on TOUR. Had I been a betting man, my analytical effort might well have been lucrative.

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