THE MENTAL GRIND
Steve LeBrun has been to Q-School 11 times.
He says it casually, like it was just part of his life’s journey. He has three kids and a wife now. He’s not out of the woods yet, even at 42, in terms of what could happen in golf. He hasn’t won on the Korn Ferry Tour or PGA TOUR in his career. A return trip to Q-School could be one day in the realm.
But in 2012, there was something different about the week. His wife, Jen, gave birth to their second daughter the night before Second Stage of Q-School. He brought a book with him to Final Stage and sat alone at dinner and lunch reading it. He said, reflecting back, he actually enjoyed the week of nights in a hotel – the sleeps were quiet.
Q-School fosters a concern, LeBrun said, that early-calling a playing partner’s shot – paying a compliment before the ball settles in less optimal position – can result in bad juju.
“Ninety percent of the guys are walking on eggshells,” said LeBrun. He had played in the U.S. Open, his first major, earlier in the year. It wasn’t close to the pressure he felt at Q-School.
“The U.S. Open was nerve-wracking because of the number of people lining the fairways, how hard the course was, and because you didn’t want to look foolish,” said LeBrun. “But definitely, those Q-School days are some of the most pressure ever.”
He led Final Stage after the first day that year. But he said he might have been even more nervous leading the tournament than he would have been chasing a number.
“I don’t think I dropped outside the top seven in any round, but that’s just three shots from being outside the number. You’re on edge every shot,” said LeBrun. “Even though I was leading … I just remember it being like all the other ones.”
It’s not easy, mentally, to move one’s way through a multi-level test like Q-School. Much has been written on Q-School and who comes from where and how and what. But every year, there’s a new story or a new crop of guys who make it, or break it, during that Final Stage effort.
“I remember I was broke before I signed up for that Q-School,” said Chris Baker, who advanced in 2013. The Iowa State alum won the Greater Cedar Rapids Open the year prior just to put enough cash in his pocket to pay the entry fee.
“Everyone is sweating,” said Homa. “Golf, in general, there’s comaraderie. I … was wishing I could talk to people a little bit. But I feel like everyone was out of their comfort level a little bit.”
That discomfort really starts at Second Stage, according to players who have been through it before.
Advancing through Second Stage and into Final Stage, even prior to 2013, earns something. Some status. Some place to play. Second Stage still gives guys the heebie-jeebies talking about it.
“There was more pressure at Second Stage for me,” said Roger Sloan, who finished T15 at Final Stage in 2013 and would go on to win on the Korn Ferry Tour the next year. “If you don’t get through, then it’s back on the mini-tours and it’s another year before you can have a kick at the can.”
“Final Stage is Final Stage, but for me, Second Stage was everything,” said LeBrun. “Q-School by name is more pressure packed than any other tournament, but for me I don’t think Final Stage is as pressure-packed as Second Stage.”
It’s not much for single guys, LeBrun said – save the emotional toll it may take chasing Monday qualifiers, cobbling together a mini-tour schedule, and laying in bed wondering what-might-have-been. But with kids and mouths to feed and a mortgage to pay, it can sting at the deepest level.
“Because if you don’t get through Second Stage,” he said, “you have no job.”