Clemson graduate John Engler went back to school last week - Q-school, that is - and learned two lessons that will stick with him for the rest of his professional life.
Lesson No. 1: Three-putt bogeys won't get you too far in a world where par is below average.
Lesson No. 2: If you're a 23-year-old golfer from Augusta, you better get used to being measured in units of Charles Howell.
"In the press room, everybody was comparing me to Charles Howell, which was an honor to me," Engler said of his junior rival. "The only thing that bothered me was, he didn't play Q-school, so you can't really compare me to him."
Engler took a major step at perpetuating any rivalry with Howell on a broader stage by accomplishing something his now famous peer never did - surviving three stages of PGA Tour qualifying school and securing a full-time job. Despite a three-putt bogey on the 108th hole, the former ACC Tournament champion eked out a tie for 80th that guaranteed him unlimited access to the Buy.com Tour in 2002.
"That makes a huge difference in how many tournaments you're going to play," Engler said. "I think it will be easier for me to prove myself over 30 tournaments than over six days."
For most golfers, the Buy.com Tour is the perfect proving ground for future PGA Tour stars. David Duval, Tom Lehman, John Daly and David Toms are among the numerous stars who learned how to win on the minor circuit.
The top 15 money leaders at season's end earn PGA Tour cards. To make decent money on the Buy.com Tour, you have to finish high. To finish high, you have to shoot low - every day.
"The major difference, to me, between amateur golf and professional golf is that in amateur golf par is a good score," Engler said. "If you took even par in college and amateur golf you'd finish top 10 a lot. You've got to change your mindset to shoot low numbers (as a pro). You've got to make a lot of birdies and if you don't you're going to be left in the dust."
That truth was impressed upon Engler during the six days of Q-school that graduates consider the most torturous test in golf. One bad round or too few birdies can ground a career before it gets started.
But despite an opening 73 that put Engler in a hole, the ex-Tiger found the reality of Q-school much less harrowing than he anticipated.
"I thought it was going to be this grinding, grueling six rounds of U.S. Open-like golf, but it's not at all," he said. "It's just a normal golf course and you have to make a lot of birdies. Unfortunately, I didn't do that. I can't say I didn't have opportunities because the last four rounds I hit 16 greens each round. I was more frustrated than mentally exhausted."
Engler has until the 2002 season starts in March to elevate his game to where it needs to be to take the next step toward Howell's league. He enters professional life without any baggage - building a foundation on top of his collegiate successes rather than any accumulated professional failures.
"You might say some of those guys who have been out there a long time have suffered the brunt of the game of golf," Engler said. "It can be a cruel game to some people. Any time you play well in golf you're going to feel more confident about your game the next time. I think I will be a little more confident than some of the guys I graduated Q-school with."
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219.