Q school, even the name sounds ominously quirky. Most pros dread it like the flu, but at the same time it’s almost the only way to get to — or get back to — the PGA Tour and the good life.
Jimmy Carter has been to Q school before, and the East Valley pro is there again at age 43. Fortunately, he has earned his spot in the 108-hole finale the first week in December at LaQuinta, Calif., after holding on for dear life last week during a second-stage qualifier at McKinney, Texas.
"It’s the one tournament of the year I don’t mind missing," said Carter, a 20-year veteran who is coming off his second disappointing season in a row.
"It weighs on you, and yet it’s an awesome challenge to get through it. As long as you don’t accidentally think about the consequences of what happens (if you play poorly), you’re usually fine. And if you make it through, it just might be a better feeling than winning."
It’s a numbers game that leaves you numb. Like in 1999, when Scottsdale’s Joe Daley had a putt during the final round literally bounce out of a cup, denying him a PGA Tour card by a single shot. Or in ‘97, when Scottsdale’s Todd Dempsey, thinking he had missed his card by a stroke, took an exasperated swipe at a 2-foot putt on his last hole and lipped it out only to find out later he was "in" had he made it.
"(Q school) is definitely a long and tough road," Carter conceded. "But it’s better than no road at all.’’
If Carter is weary from the journey, you would never know it from his level-headed approach. The past two seasons, he has made just $330,000, ending up in Q school both times.
"Last year, I played pretty well at the finals, before I shot myself in the foot during the fourth round,’’ said the winner of nearly $5 million in career earnings. "But that’s the thing: it only takes one bad round to kill you.’’
Thus, Carter spent this season searching for sponsor’s exemptions and a few openings in second-tier events.
"I got into 18 tournaments, six by sponsor’s exemption, and that’s really pretty good for my status,’’ said Carter, who is classified as a "past champion" (2000 Tucson Open) and a "veteran member," meaning he has made more than 160 cuts, or in Carter’s case more than 260. "It keeps the door cracked open. But, unfortunately, it’s just a little crack.’’
So it’s back to Q school, and Carter is actually one of the lucky ones. Believe it or not, there are more than 40 players from the East Valley who are still competing at three other second-stage sites that won’t be completed until Friday.
"I’m not surprised how many young guys — how many transplants — live here now. I love this place, too,’’ said the former Arizona State All-American who grew up in Mesa.
"It’s part of the reason the game has changed so much. You’ve got so many great young players, and they all hit it over 300 yards — farther than you can imagine.’’
Carter, who was the first Sun Devil ever to win the NCAA championship (1983), remains "old school" and true-blue. He still has the fire, even if it occasionally causes him to contemplate consequences most of us never have to weigh.
"I’ve got three boys — Shane, 13, Brant, 9, and Race, 7 — and you miss them terribly when you’re staring at those hotel walls,’’ he said. "You start thinking, ‘I should be back home with them, helping them with their schoolwork, going to their baseball, basketball and soccer games.’ ‘’
It’s true, professional golf is not all courtesy cars, tournament perks and big bucks, because every once in awhile reality settles in. And then along comes the dreaded Q word, and you have to fight for everything all over again. It’s not the most ideal situation, but Carter wouldn’t have it any other way.
"If it all ended today,’’ he said, "I would have no regrets because I love the game. It’s been a great life, really, even if it has been torturous at times.’’