As the PGA Champions Tour is set to embark on its 2022 season, it welcomes an eager fist-full of newcomers to its ranks who successfully survived the grinding gauntlet of the Q School tournament series last fall that concluded with its final stage event held December 7-10 at TPC Tampa in Tampa Bay, FL.
Where dreams can be made
Champions Tour status is heavily weighted toward the name brand PGA Tour star system with names like Mickelson, Couples, Langer, and Love prominently marketed to attract audiences to the course and eyeballs to the television screen. But even as an exemption reward system for transitioning tour stars holds sway in PGA Tour offices, unlikely success stories emerging from the Q School process over the years have resonated with the tour’s every-man fan base.
Names like Jim Albus, Tom Wargo, Bob Duval, and Allen Doyle are but a few who have cut a swath of popularity and financial reward after rising from the ranks of anonymous mini-tours or club professionals to realize a dream and blaze a path of hope for countless more like them.
How does Q-school work?
In that pursuit, there is never a shortage of dreamers willing to pin their hopes on that pathway. It begins with multiple 72-hole First Stage tournaments held around the country that host over 250 players whose prior resumes meet a qualifying standard for entry.
You have to be the best of the best
A total of 79 players advance from the initial stage to the Final Stage Q School. Of these 79 hopefuls, only five are awarded fully exempt status for the 2022 Champions Tour Season. The next seven finishers earn limited, conditional status that may or may not result in gaining entry in but a small handful of events. Those seven plus the remainder of the top 30 placeholders will have preferred status to attempt qualifying through Monday qualifiers for Champions Tour events throughout the year.
Top Qualifiers for the 2022 Champions Tour
This year’s Q School did not disappoint in offering up every conceivable story of dream realized to excruciating heartbreak.
Tournament medalist Rob Labritz of Bedford Hills, NY, a lifetime club professional, could not have caricatured the very concept of the everyday player making good more sublimely. The 51-year old Glen Arbor Country Club professional has been a practitioner of the game at the teaching and service to a membership level for over three decades. Turning in a 17-under par 267 four-day total highlighted by a final round 64, Labritz repeatedly intoned a highly emotional release after his victory that, “I’m a club pro, just a club pro.”
But now, he’s a card-carrying tour-level player who had amassed an impressive playing record between giving great golf lessons and tending shop. That record included three New York State Open Championships at fearsome Bethpage Black, two appearances in the PGA Championship, three-time PGA Met Section Player of the Year honors, and eight more PGA of America sectional wins.
Win of a lifetime
His tear-choked reaction in the aftermath of his Q school victory included a testimonial to longtime friend and supporter Robbie Rissman, now deceased. Labritz adopted his friend’s encouraging words, “keep grinding, always-but look around and enjoy the ride,” as a guiding inspiration, even emblazoning them into his leather yardage bookcase. He then summed up his joy as he grasped to capture the surreal nature of the moment, “I’m over the moon. It’s a new chapter of life, and I can’t wait to get started.”
Among the other quartet of full qualifiers, Thailand’s Thongchai Jaidee, tied in the runner-up position at 14-under par 270, is easily the best known and most well-credentialed player. Spending most of his 21-year career on the European and Asian Tours, Jaidee accumulated 21 tournament wins, 32 major championship appearances, five World Cups, a President’s Cup, and a world ranking as high as 27th at one point. Now settled in Florida, Jaidee’s level of expectation is a continued success, building off his prior career and buoyed by the Q School tournament’s low round of 63.
David Branshaw and Tom Gillis, also moving on to the Champions Tour, both toiled intermittently on the PGA Tour and Korn Ferry tour over lengthy careers. Gillis is impacting more noticeably with a pair of PGA Tour runner-up finishes, including a playoff loss to Jordan Spieth in the 2015 John Deere Classic.
Tampa Bay resident Branshaw used his familiarity with the host TPC course to tie Jaidee’s second-place finish at 270 and produce the only sub-70 scorecards on all four days. He made most of his career at the Korn Ferry level but has kept his game sharp as he approached age 50 with ample time spent on the West Florida Tour.
Inarguably, the least likely and most obscure qualifier was Jacksonville, FL. native Roger Rowland who toiled anonymously for three decades after coming out of Augusta College in 1989. A handful of Champions Tour appearances as a Monday qualifier the last several years never produced a better result than 43rd position, but the career journeyman leap-frogged 11 players with a final round 65 to grab 4th-place at Q School and a ticket for the 2002 tour.
Conditional Status for the 2022 Champions Tour
Of the next group earning conditional status, 57-year old Guy Boros and Mario Tiziani’s results starkly demonstrate the tournament’s ephemeral capacity for inflicting disappointment. Boros, son of major champion Julius Boros, teetered on the cusp of breakthrough success over a long tenure on the PGA and Canadian Tours. He recorded a PGA Tour win in 1996, captured the Canadian PGA Tour money title in 1991, appeared in seven major championships, and notched five other worldwide wins. An on and off Champions Tour player the past half-decade, his final round 67 at Q School left him a shot shy for one of the five tour cards and a long season ahead of contemplating how to proceed with a meaningful playing career as he passes the fountain of youth’s early 50’s age group for the best chance of success among the senior set.
Tiziani, famously referred to as Steve Stricker’s brother-in-law has experienced the vagaries and whims of professional golf over his three decades of trying to establish his own identity and place. A mostly Korn Ferry Tour career mixed with occasional PGA Tour starts yielded only modest results. Still, an opening 66 and the first-round lead ignited interest around Tour star Stricker’s in-law. Tiziani turned in only even par results, however, over his final three rounds to finish two shots short of the pace for a tour card. Again, a severe disappointment as he is left to ponder the way forward through the long off-season.
Top 30 Noticeable Finishers
The players in the top 30 received prize money for their efforts and the opportunity to enter Monday qualifiers through the season. The cast is littered with names possessing similar resumes of respectable, if inconsistent, tour careers that provided a livelihood but rarely produced signature accomplishments. Names like Matt Gogel, Paul Stankowski, Esteban Toledo, and Ken Duke became accustomed to playing high-level, competitive golf for a paycheck. Still, they swung and missed at this Q School opportunity to continue their playing careers. It leaves them and the others in their realm to re-assess their reality at an age when most business careers are tracking through prime earning years.
Sweden native Jarmo Sandelin enjoyed a successful European Tour career for over a quarter of a century and stood poised after three rounds to make a run at securing a card but fell back on the last day with a 73. “I’ve been over here for 4 weeks practicing and playing, but now I go back home and decide if it’s worth trying again next year,” he sighed. “I could play the European Senior Tour, but while this tour is harder to get onto, the Euro tour is harder to play on. The travel and scheduling are very difficult back there. I really wanted to make it here.”
Just outside that top 30 list appears the name of Omar Uresti, who caused the most stir in this universe of second chance dreamers due to the course he has charted to remain competitive as a player. Unsuccessful now in his three tries to reach the Champions Tour through Q School, Uresti has fallen back on his PGA of America Class A Professional designation to play a full schedule of PGA of America events while marking time till his next crack at Q School.
Although no working affiliation with a PGA member club, his Class A card stems from 20-year membership on the PGA Tour, with the stipulation of having played fewer than 10 Tour events in a prior 12 month period. Using this avenue, Oresti, who made 377 starts on the PGA Tour, has dominated the PGA of America tournament schedule with eight wins and five appearances in the PGA Championship.
This circumstance has angered a significant number of the full-time club professionals who feel at a disadvantage to Oresti, who is unencumbered by a club job and practices and plays full time. For his part, Oresti notes first that his membership in the PGA of America and qualification to play its events is within the PGA’s own guidelines, and then references his efforts to grow the game just like Club professionals. “I have a foundation that created and continues to support the First Tee of America in Austin, Texas, and I sponsor a charity tournament at my home club, Onion Creek, that provides equipment and resources for young golfers in our area,” he says. “Believe me, I would rather be out on the Champions Tour, but I haven’t been able to get through Q School yet, so I need those PGA events to have a place to play.”
The dream was just out of reach
Further down the list, the names no longer ring familiar. They become an assortment of players whose expectations were likely tempered by reality but still no less hopeful than a baseball team in spring training.
Tom Kalinowski is a sometime Club Professional, teacher, and equipment rep from Los Angeles who allowed himself to envision catching lightning in a bottle but never equaled par in four rounds. His trip home was eased by the company and empathy of LPGA player Brianna Do, who is also seeking to regain status on her tour.
Chad Kurmel is the Director of Golf at the Michigan State University Golf Course and a teacher with a full schedule book of students. He harbored a few illusions about not returning to the snowy north for the winter. “This has been fun. I don’t get to play much tournament golf, so I really just wanted to see how I would stack up against guys who have made a living doing this,” he said. Kurmel’s 10 over-par 294 proved a creditable showing for the part-time player and provided plenty of fodder for those hot stove buddy stories during the cold months waiting for spring’s return.
Jody Bellflower of Milledgeville, Ga. harbored more ambitious goals as he was looking to resurrect a playing career that had been lying dormant for a decade and a half. Even as he built a successful career after golf as an Insurance Credit analyst, he nevertheless began to view his 15-year professional playing career as unrealized potential as he neared the 50-year marker. Buoyed by a 46th place finish in last year’s U.S. Senior Open in Omaha, Bellflower cruised through first stage qualifying, then crashed the wall in his opening round in Tampa with a 77. “I didn’t play as bad as 77. Sometimes though, that’s just the score you shoot,” he lamented. Likely now to content his competitive yearnings with local tournaments, he has the luxury of returning his prime focus to family and business.
Long Bombs Golf Final Say:
And so the story goes. The fortunate five qualifiers continue for now to bask in that spring training warmth of hopes and dreams while anticipating their February debuts on the Champions Tour. Still, another harsh reality lurks. It will require a win or a top 35 finish on the 2022 money list to retain their exempt status for the following year. Now competing with a cadre of established and experienced former PGA stars, that will be no small task. And yet, the story of Cinderella endures in the imagination with the hope that in this ending midnight never strikes.