Going to School . . .
What You Can Learn From Their Trips to the LPGA Qualifying School
by Roberta A. Isleib, Ph.D.
My heart lurched and a crop of goose bumps ran the length of both arms when I read the sign: "Plantation Golf and Country Club Welcomes LPGA Qualifying School-Spectators Welcome!" And I was only there to research my mystery novel, not to play in the tournament. I couldn't imagine the feelings of the players who had come to battle their way through qualifying school for a coveted place on the LPGA Tour.
Two days later, a crowd of anxious women milled around the hand-lettered scoreboard, then watched silently as a large pair of cardboard scissors was pasted onto the chart. A wave of emotions swept through the onlookers-relief, despair, disappointment, elation. The cut had been announced at the first sectional qualifier for the LPGA qualifying school, and half the field had just lost their chance at a dream. Only thirty golfers would finish the week with an invitation to the LPGA Q-school finals in October.
As a spectator, I wondered how this pressure-cooker felt from the inside and what lessons could be extracted for club players. Three golfers who have experienced Q-school agreed to share their memories and advice.
Diane Irvin, a 2002 rookie on the LPGA Tour, went to Q-school three times before her breakthrough in 2001. Says Irvin: "There wasn't any one thing that made the difference last year. I had been in contention in a lot of events on the Futures Tour, and that really boosted my confidence." Before going out on the European mini-tour in 1997, Irvin had worked as a lawyer for five years. "The one thing I can always say is that I am playing golf because I love it-I do not have to play golf. Too many players out on the mini-tours are playing because they don't know what else to do. That's a lot of pressure. They don't know what else is out in the world for them."
Kim O'Connor, a Futures' Tour player from 1998 to 2000, attended the LPGA Q-school tournament for two of those three years. "Q-school is the only route onto the LPGA Tour," says O'Connor, now an assistant pro at Indian Hills Country Club in Kansas. "The PGA Tour has Monday qualifying tournaments where mini-tour players have a shot at playing their way into the professional tournaments. But only amateurs or conditional players have this opportunity at LPGA events. That makes the experience of Q-school even more pressured for women."
O'Connor says friends were amazed that she chose not to go to Q-school in 1999, the year she had her best performance on the mini-tour. She met the same kind of astonished reactions when she decided last year to retire from her traveling life and work on getting her Class "A" PGA card. "I loved the experiences I had on tour, and I've got some great stories. But I also love the fact that I now have stability, and I'm close to my family."
Peggy Stevens, teaching pro at Madison Country Club, started playing golf at age 24. Although handicapped by her lack of junior and collegiate tournament experience, she came within two shots of qualifying for the Tour in 1989-her third try at Q-school. She remembers the third round of the sectionals like it was yesterday.
"I was so nervous. Should I eat breakfast, should I not eat breakfast? I was shaking as I putted for par on the first hole, and shaking again on the second tee. The friend caddying for me said just go out and play. Quit worrying about the score. It felt so great to go to the briefing the next morning-you felt special to have come out in the top 25 of all those players."
Stevens remembers the final tournament in Sweetwater, Texas, as brutal. "I probably made a mistake having my dad caddie for me for the first time," she said. "You have such a complex relationship with your father. I think it put added pressure on me. I made it through to the third day, then three-putted three of the last four holes. When it was over, I holed up in the locker room with my mother-my father wondered if we'd ever come out." Stevens tells students who are preparing for tournaments that it's crucial to try to separate their self-esteem from their golf performance. "It takes a lot of experience to be able to take your regular game into competition conditions."
Dr. Joseph Parent, author of Zen Golf, has coached several players through their bids to Q-school. Parent points out that Q-school exaggerates the pressures of competitive golf because the outcome has such a major affect on players' careers. The players who perform the best usually have no expectations for their performance or have become familiar with the pressure.
"The biggest issue becomes thinking you need to play perfectly. You're afraid to make mistakes, so you swing defensively. Trying too hard hurts your short game too. You can lose your touch."