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Len Ziehm On Golf

Q-School is sure to bring a dramatic ending to golf’s 2019 season

The year’s biggest golf championships are over. Now comes the hard part.

There’s another side to professional golf that contrasts sharply with what your see on television screen. It’s called Q-School, and it’s the main path to get to most every one of golf’s pro tours. Some lucky ones have gotten to a pro tour without going to Q-School – but not many. Win a lot of money fast or win a tournament right after turning pro and you could get a tour spot but few – very few – have been able to do that over the years.

For the men, there’s no Q-School for the PGA School anymore. The young hopefuls begin their quest for a tour card at the Korn Ferry (formerly Web.com) Tour Q-School. It’s the best path to the PGA Tour, but first you’ve got to earn your berth on it through three stages of qualifying school. It’s a bit complicated on how it all works.

As of this printing Arlington Heights’ Doug Ghim was trying to play his way onto the PGA Tour via the Korn Ferry Tour Playoffs. He finished in the top 75 on the Korn Ferry money list and that got him into the three-tournament playoff series. The top 25 in those playoffs get PGA cards for 2019-20, and Ghim came through when it counted the most, finishing in 23rd place to earn his PGA Tour card for the 2019-20 season.

Ghim was one of the lucky ones. What happened to two other Chicago area players who competed on the Korn Ferry Tour this season was painful – excruciatingly painful. Lake Forest’s Brad Hopfinger and Deerfield’s Vince India just missed a spot in the Korn Ferry Playoffs. Hopfinger was No. 79 and India No. 85 on the season point/money list.

For India his life changed in a heartbeat. The 2018 Illinois Open champion got hot in the last regular season tournament in Portland, leading after two rounds and contending well into the back nine. He just needed a par on the final hole to get into the Korn Ferry Playoffs, which would have assured him at least a return to that circuit next year and a top 25 finish would make him a PGA Tour player.

Instead, India made double bogey on the last hole. It dropped him out of the Korn Ferry Playoffs and left him with two stages of Q-School just to play on the circuit again.

Hopfinger and India were college teammates at Iowa and toiled on the Web.com/Korn Ferry circuit for several seasons just looking for the break that would change their lives. The possibility is still there, so is the pressure.

Northbrook’s Nick Hardy, meanwhile, is just starting that challenge. Hardy couldn’t have done much more as an amateur. He was a mainstay on great teams at Illinois for four years. He earned coveted Sweet Six berths in three Western Amateurs. He qualified for multiple U.S. Opens, made the cut in several PGA and Korn Ferry Tour events after landing sponsor exemptions and set a scoring record in winning an Illinois State Amateur.

Still, when Q-School came a few months after his collegiate eligibility expired at Illinois, Hardy wasn’t quite ready.

“In the first stage I was 20-under, but in the second I missed by two shots and made bogey on the last two holes,’’ said Hardy. “I was that close.’’

So one of the greatest amateurs to come out of the Chicago ranks in years was left scouring for tournaments in between practice sessions at the Merit Club, in Libertyville, in his first year as a professional.

“I put myself in a tough situation without a place to play,’’ he said, “but I learned a lot. That’s what I wanted to do – play Monday qualifiers and see what I could do. It’s really not easy. I made a few but didn’t do any good in those tournaments. Still there were a lot of positives.’’

Hardy qualified for the U.S. Open again. He won mini-tour event in Oklahoma, which paid $20,000, and he was runner-up in the Illinois Open.

“I had my moments, but there are some things in my game that I need to address,’’ he said. “It’s just one-two things that I need to address to play with the best in the world.’’

The primary one, Hardy believes, is wedge play. His college coach, Mike Small, went through the same process as a young player and he gave Hardy some good counseling.

“Coach told me you can’t just try harder in golf,’’ said Hardy. “Golf is like baseball. You give your full effort but that one thing – step back, be softer – I’m fighting that every day. That’s just who I am. Every golfer has their things about them. You give your best effort but – just by playing harder – doesn’t get it done.’’

Now older and wiser, Hardy is ready to try again.

“I believe in myself. I’m not worried about the competition,’’ said Hardy. “I’m just worried about myself.’’

Bolingbrook’s David Cooke, who won the Illinois Open for the second time last month, is another facing a playing dilemma but his is different than Hardy’s. Cooke has full playing privileges on the European PGA Challenge Tour, a stepping stone to the European PGA Tour. That’s the path that current world No. 1 Brooks Koepka took to get where he’s at now.

Cooke isn’t sure that’s what he wants to do. Last year he could have played a full schedule on the Challenge Tour but didn’t. Recently married and backed by a sponsorship agreement with Wilson, Cooke is preparing for a return to the European Q-School in November.

Other options include the PGA Latinoamerica circuit. Highwood’s Patrick Flavin, the 2017 Illinois State Amateur and Illinois Open champion, and Wheaton’s Tee-K Kelly, a two-time Illinois State Amateur winner, have done well there while awaiting their chance at Q-School. Hardy said those tours are an option.

“Hopefully I’ll get my (Korn Ferry) card this fall, but all options are open. My plan for this fall is to play full-time on the Korn Ferry Tour next year. I’m very optimistic.’’

The finals of the Korn Ferry qualifying school are Dec. 12-15 at a site that hasn’t been announced.