Rarely does a Chicago golfer get through a qualifying school for any of the professional tours. This year, though, two did – and their roads to success couldn’t be much more different.
Wilmette’s Eric Meierdierks, a 27-year old with only one PGA start to his credit, made it all the way to the PGA Tour for 2013 with his tie for 14th finish in the three-stage November elimination that started with 1,558 players.
Berwyn’s Nicole Jeray, 42, competed in the qualifying tournament for the LPGA Tour for the 19th time. It had 122 finalists, and she finished tied for 17th . That 90-hole competition ended earlier this week.
Meierdierks, though relatively new to the rigorous qualifying procedures, made it easily. The top 25 and ties qualified for PGA Tour cards at PGA West in LaQuinta, Calif. A week later Jeray survived in dramatic fashion at LPGA International in Daytona Beach, FL. Only the top 20 get LPGA cards in that circuit’s Q-School, and Jeray had to go to a seven-player playoff for the final four spots. She survived with a 20-foot birdie putt on the fifth extra hole.
The first PGA Tour event for Meierdierks as a card-carrying member of the circuit will likely be the Sony Open in Hawaii on Jan. 7. Jeray has been on and off the LPGA circuit since earning privileges for the first time in 1994. She won’t make her full-fledged LPGA return until at least February, since that’s when the circuit begins play in 2013.
Meierdierks arrival on the PGA Tour was a feel-good story, just as much as Jeray’s grittiness was on the women’s side. He had been basically a mini-tour player since turning professional in 2009. His career highlight had been a victory in the 2010 Illinois Open at Hawthorn Woods, and he lost that tourney’s 2012 title in a playoff with Max Scodro last August at The Glen Club.
Six days before the first stage of this fall’s Q-School Meierdierks suffered a family tragedy. His father Dick, who had been in poor health after developing an infection following surgery, passed away at the age of 70. Making it through the first stage may have been Meierdierks’ toughest test in the qualifying process.
Fond memories of his father, however, played a role in Meierdierks’ success in the final stage, played over the Tournament and Nicklaus courses at PGA West.
“We had stayed in Palm Springs on spring vacations,’’ he said, “and I distinctly remembered one year.’’
That was when the family’s lodging was off the seventh hole of the Nicklaus’ layout. It was understandable he’d remember that, given an incident that happened to his father there when he and Eric went out on the course to play a few holes late in the day.
“He walked through a screen door and tore his patella tendon,’’ recalled Meierdierks. That misfortune aside, good family memories helped Meierdierks cope with the tension that always plays a part in Q-School. By the time his 90-hole marathon was over Meierdierks was set for the next stage in his golfing life.
“It’s been incredible,’’ he told me after a few days of reflection. “It’s been a long journey, and it feels really good to finally have a dream come true and see a lot of hard work pay off.’’
Except for caddie and boyhood friend Bill Bohr, Meierdierks winged in alone during the final stage of Q-School. His mother Linda debated coming after Eric moved into contention, but decided to stay in Chicago.
“She didn’t want to change the mojo that was going on in my week,’’ he said, “though I’m not sure it would have made any difference. Anyway, she’ll be able to see me play lots of tournaments now.’’
Meierdierks, who has spent considerable time in Arizona “chasing the money on mini-tours’’ the last two years, planned a return to Illinois for two weeks during Christmas. Then he’ll be off on a new adventure. His only previous PGA Tour event was the 2009 Frys.com Open. He made it into the field through Monday qualifying but didn’t survive the 36-hole cut.
“I didn’t play particularly bad,’’ he said. “It was mainly a learning experience, and it was very eye-opening. I had placed the players on the PGA Tour on such a high pedestal, but I realized then that they weren’t that far away. It was a really big step for me. I also saw how well they were treated out there.’’
Now Meierdierks will find that out more frequently. He expects to get into quite a few early-season events, and his play will dictate how much he plays as the year progresses. Bohr, who carried his bag in all three stages of Q-School, will remain his caddie. They grew up together as caddies at Sunset Ridge, though Meierdierks went to high school at New Trier and Bohr at Loyola.
His equipment sponsorship, with TaylorMade, isn’t a concern and he feels prepared for what’s ahead the next few months.
“I could see (at Q-School) that the PGA Tour is a massive organization, and it has a lot of people in place to help you through this process,’’ said Meierdierks. “There’s going to be a little lifestyle change, but mainly I figure I’ll be paying a little more taxes.’’
Jeray has been the only Chicago player on the LPGA Tour for the last two decades. The last Chicago player to earn privileges on the PGA Tour was Crystal Lake’s Joe Affrunti, who earned his card by finishing in the top 25 on the Nationwide (now Web.com Tour) money list in 2010. He required shoulder surgery last spring and missed most of what would have been his rookie season on the PGA Tour. Coming off a medical exemption, he hopes to resume playing on the circuit in 2013.