The final stage of the PGA Tour qualifying tournament is the toughest six days in golf. For those who survive, the next 10 months don't get any easier.
Just ask Cameron Beckman.
He toiled for six years before realizing his dream of playing on the PGA Tour, then had to return to Q-school each of the next three seasons.
"You work so hard to get to that point ... and then it becomes difficult," he said.
It all starts Wednesday at Bear Lakes Country Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., for 167 players trying to earn PGA Tour cards available only to the top 35 and ties.
The candidates include 17-year-old Ty Tryon, who turned professional this summer between his sophomore and junior years in high school. Other youngsters include 20-year-old Aaron Baddeley of Australia, former NCAA champion Luke Donald of England and Erik Compton, who received a heart transplant when he was 12.
The wannabes are joined by some has-beens - 15 players who have won PGA Tour events, six of them in their 40s.
Hard-luck cases include Jaxon Brigman, who two years ago signed for the wrong score in the final round - one stroke higher than he actually shot - had to accept that score and missed his card by one shot.
They all should keep one thing in mind: Surviving Q-school only gets the foot in a door that feels as heavy as a bank vault.
Q-school grads have the lowest status and don't always get into top tournaments at the start of the year. It is not unusual for them to go to tournaments as alternates and leave without ever hitting a shot.
"Unless you're one of the top finishers, you can't make out a schedule," said PGA champion David Toms, 10 years removed from his last trip to Q-school. "And if you don't play well when you do get to play, it's a difficult situation. You have to make the best out of each and every opportunity. I've been to that 'Fall Classic' way too many times."
Stephen Allan won the qualifying tournament last year in California. He played in 31 events and finished 185th on the money list.
Back to school.
It's a routine Beckman knows all too well.
He won the NAIA title at Texas Lutheran in 1991, turned pro two years later and then spent the next six years trying to get his card. He finally realized his dream in 1998.
Or so he thought.
"It was my biggest accomplishment in golf. It was a great feeling," he said. "I spent six years thinking about getting my card. Then, I finally got it and I don't think I was prepared. Your goal is to get your card, and you feel like you have achieved your goal. But if you don't pay attention and reset your goals, you can get complacent."
Beckman finished 172nd on the money list as a rookie, which earned him another trip to Q-school. Last year, he was injured early in the season and a late push moved him up to 139th on the money list. The top 125 keep their cards.
Beckman made it through Q-school a third straight time, the longest active streak on the PGA Tour - and one he was thrilled to see come to an end.
Earlier this month, Beckman birdied three of the last five holes to win the Southern Farm Bureau Classic in Mississippi. The victory gave him exempt status on the PGA Tour until the 2004 season.
Instead of gearing up his game for the most important week of his year, Beckman was home Monday in San Antonio drafting a schedule of tournaments he gets to play - Kapalua, Riviera, Bay Hill, Memorial.
He won't be playing with Buy.com or Q-school graduates in the first two rounds, but Tiger Woods, David Duval and other PGA Tour winners.
This year's graduating class will be dreaming about those kind of perks.
Beckman and Garrett Willis were the only Q-school grads to win on tour this year. Willis won in Tucson, the first event of the year held opposite the winners-only Mercedes Championship. Beckman won the last event, held opposite the Tour Championship.
Of the 36 players who earned their cards last year at Q-school, only 10 finished in the top 125 on the money list; Beckman was the only player in the top 50.
And it's not like they didn't have enough opportunities. All but two of them played 20 tournaments, and 12 of them played in at least 30 tournaments.
"It can be intimidating the first year, especially when you're playing with guys you're used to watching on TV," Beckman said. "I got to play three years in a row, got familiar with the surroundings on the tour and started to feel like I belong."
The next batch of hopefuls will be decided sometime Monday afternoon. As usual, there will be a mixture of euphoria and agony.
And then the real work begins.
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