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The trials of Monday qualification

There is so little reward in Monday qualifying, one must wonder why golfers submit themselves to the torture.

Most weeks on the PGA Tour, 100 or more aspiring pros gather near a Tour stop to bleed cash, sweat blood, and make birdies. The goal is to become part of a fortunate quartet with spots in the field. The lucky ones Monday at Lyman Orchards Golf Course were Frank Graziosa, Tim Wilkinson, Eli Zackheim, and Uly Grissette. Graziosa carded a 67, while the others shot 69 to gain berths into this week's Buick Championship at the TPC at River Highlands.

Monday qualifying is not Afghan minefield sweeping. But on the list of high-pressure jobs, it ranks above most. Difficulty exists on several levels. On the mental side, there's disavowing any knowledge of pressure. Think about it: Players have 18 holes to go low. A bogey means one needs two birdies because par is rarely good enough to qualify for a Tour event. To shoot 4-, 5-, or 6-under-par, a golfer needs confidence and pressure is life's most potent confidence-killer.

"I only now have the confidence to shoot those scores," three-time Connecticut Open champ Kyle Gallo said. The Cleveland Pro Tour veteran shot 70 to narrowly miss setting up a four-way playoff.

"It took a while to trust my game. I am hitting the ball better than ever, but that's what it takes because there are a lot of guys out here who can shoot great numbers."

One can't have confidence, though, without a finely-tuned swing. Shooting 67 is tough for those crooked off the tee, imprecise on the fairways, or fidgety on the greens. As even the most casual sports fan knows, not even Tiger Woods wins when he's playing poorly.

"A lot of things have to go right," former Enfield resident Billy Downes said. "I'd rather it be three or four days to get into the event. But you only have one day, so there's nothing you can do. I believe if I have a great day, I can do it "

Finally, there are all those niggling, practical considerations. At $1.89 a gallon, driving from event to event is pricey. Hotels aren't cheap unless you like thin walls and roaches. And when the entry fee is $400, as it was for Monday's four-spot on the Robert Trent Jones course, a few bad rounds makes that club pro job seem mighty tempting.

"Sponsorship out here is essential and anyone who has it is thankful," Ellington native Jeff Curl said. The son of PGA Tour veteran Rod Curl, who shot 72 on Monday, was once sponsored by Foxwoods Casino. He is now independent and calls Jupiter, Fla., home as he plies his trade on the Golden Bear Tour.

Interestingly, this week's four-spot was a little easier than most. Because the Buick Championship field is so weak, anyone with any sort of PGA Tour affiliation is already in the field. Guys with provisional cards have spots in the Buick because only a small percentage of the fully-exempt players are in Cromwell this week.

"There were not as many guys playing this year," Downes said. "Plus, they've upped it to $400 the last two years. The fields were a lot bigger when it was only $200."

Smaller qualifiers increase the chance a player like Downes can break through with his great day. By his estimation, only 30-35 guys had enough game to make the Buick Championship field. Although when told the names of the qualifiers, he had only heard of one of them.

"You have guys who don't have a chance, although I don't say that in a bad way," Downes said. "You really know there are only 35 guys who can get into it. That's what I thought to myself."

Today, Downes will be thinking to himself what could have been. After a summer of struggle, he found his game this weekend and played great Monday. A balky putter left him three shots short.

"Today was the best ball-striking round I have had," he said. "It was frustrating. It was good for me to hit quality golf shots. But a 72 is as high as I could have shot. I did not hit it bad but I had 33 putts."

Those numbers kill. Downes, though, took a more hopeful approach by concentrating on the strides he has made in ball-striking. The year he spent on the PGA Tour (1994) helped teach him to accentuate the positive. In time, he says, the putting will come around.

Reaching a level where all aspects of your game are working is not easy. It takes time, money, talent, and luck. Since those resources are finite, why do guys go through the hassle of Monday qualifying?

A pithy Tour aspirant might say, "I'll give you a million reasons." The truth, though, is better explained by an apocryphal tale told by philosophy professors.

One colleague supposedly gave a final exam consisting of one question - "Why?" To get an A for the course, all one needed to do was answer, "Why not?"

Like people in other professions, Downes, Gallo, and Curl are working their way up the ladder. Gallo and Curl play mini-tours and hope to pass through PGA Tour Qualifying School or earn a battlefield promotion from the Nationwide Tour.

Downes has settled down but isn't against another crack at the PGA Tour's best. Currently, the only access any of them has to the promised land is dropping some cash on a select group of Monday four-spotters.
Why, you say?

Downes, Gallo, and Curl would all say, why not?

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