feb cannizzaro column

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Jim McGovern. Todd Demsey. Tommy Gainey. You may never hear of these players again after you’ve read this column.

It’s highly possible, though, that you will and, if you do you can’t help but be inspired by their stories.

They are PGA Tour Qualifying School survivors and they are some of the most compelling stories in golf, ranging from no-name kids, to long-shots from out of nowhere to aging pros who’ve been hanging on for that one last chance.

McGovern, who’s 42 years old and has been bouncing like an errant drive down a cart path, between the PGA Tour and the Nationwide Tour for the last eight yeas, fits into that last category.

McGovern, who has four kids and was wrestling whether or not it was time give up the dream he’s been chasing all his life, decided to give Q School one last try in late November.

“There were times in the early 2000s when I said to myself, ‘Maybe I’m doing this the wrong way. Maybe I need to settle down and get a job, work at a club,’”  McGovern said. “But I wanted one more chance at it. This is it. I know I can do this.’’

When McGovern made it through Orange County National in Orlando, Florida, to earn full status on the PGA Tour for 2008, his emotions ran wild.

The first thing he did was call his wife, Lauren, back in New Jersey and, with tears in his eyes, he told her: “I’m in.’’

They cried together over the phone.

McGovern, part of a large Irish family, then called his brothers and he cried some more.

When I stood at the baggage claim waiting for my golf clubs to arrive from a trip I’d been on in Florida for an upcoming Golf World story, I felt a tap on my shoulder from behind.

It was McGovern, having just arrived back in New Jersey from Q School, waiting for his sticks, too. His eyes were red from the crying he’d been doing, but his smile was as wide as the first fairway at the Old Course in St Andrews.

“I made it,’’ he told me. “I honestly don’t know if it’s visible on camera, but I was very choked up on the second to last putt. I was just lagging it. I was very emotional thinking about my dad (who’s in the early stages of Alzheimer's), my mom, my brothers and my friends who have helped me.

“I get choked up thinking about it right now. There have been times in the last four or five years when I wondered if this was ever going to happen.’’

For McGovern, whose only win on the PGA Tour came in 1993 in Houston in a playoff, it didn’t come easy. The gruelling, tedious six-round Q School is the golf equivalent to a week in the dentist chair without escape.

“There’s not much fun to be had,’’ the affable McGovern said. “It’s a very tense atmosphere the entire time. There’s not much chatter, just a lot of guys working hard, working on their games before and after their rounds.

“It’s gruelling in the sense that every day is like Groundhog Day (the same). Those 10 days feel like four weeks. It feels like you’re there a month as the tension builds up.’’

Thus the release when it was all over.

Demsey, a former NCAA champion and team-mate of Phil Mickelson at Arizona State, might be the most inspiring story to come out of Q School considering the fact that he’s come back from two operations to remove a brain tumour.

Gainey, who became a mini-tour legend and acquired the nickname, “Tommy Two Gloves’’ because he wears gloves on both hands while he plays, is another piece of work who golf fans will flock to see this season.

Gainey, from a tiny South Carolina town who has a drawl that makes it almost difficult to understand his speak, said of his game, “I self-taught myself.’’

He uses a baseball bat grip and lets it fly _ as many golf fans got to see when he competed on the Golf Channel’s Big Break VII show, which was filmed in Scotland.

Gainey’s path to the PGA Tour is as unlikely as anyone’s.

He went to Central Carolina Technical College to get a certificate in industrial maintenance and made $14 an hour. “A pretty good starting salary,’’ he said.

From there, he got a job on the assembly line in a plant wrapping insulation.

“And let me tell you, it's as bad as it sounds, wrapping insulation,’’ he said. “You're talking about itching, scratching, you name it.’’

Gainey met a friend who paid $500 of the $650 entry fee for a 1997 Teardrop Tour event and he won it, making $15,000.

 “You know, back at the time I'm just 21 years old and being at that young age, you know, I'm young and dumb, and I didn’t know what to do with that kind of money when you come into it that fast,’’ Gainey said.

Imagine if Gainey, McGovern, Demsey or one of the other 26 players who made it through Q School wins a PGA Tour event this year. That would net some $600,000 t0 $700,000. That’s a lot of wrapping insulation.

Staying on the PGA Tour, however, is goal No. 1 for these players. Because as difficult as it is getting to the PGA Tour via Q School, it’s even more difficult staying there and keeping your card by finishing within the top 125 on the money list.

Fourty players made it through the final stage of the Q School last year. Three won a tournament and nine others kept their cards. Some 17 of those 40 were back at Q School in November.

Keep an eye out for McGovern, Demsey and Gainey in 2008 and root for them. Their respective stories of Q School survival are terrific. Their success on the PGA Tour would make for even better stories.

Mark Cannizzaro writes for the New York Post, and is Golf World's man in the USA.