We can always express professional golf’s substantial depth of talent through numbers and anecdotes. And to be sure, there’s another layer of gained perspective in hearing how Brendon Todd recovered from full-swing yips to win again on the PGA Tour or how ridiculously competitive Monday qualifiers have become.
But seeing an example of the game’s depth in real time with your own eyes has a completely different effect. It’s a wake-up call for how slim the margin of error has become and how cruel the game can be to those on the wrong side of it.
Earlier this year, I got to know a player who understands this dynamic all too well. Curtis Thompson, the 26-year-old younger brother of LPGA standout Lexi Thompson and former PGA Tour player Nicholas Thompson, advanced through Q-School in 2014 before spending four consecutive seasons on what is now known as the Korn Ferry Tour. He made the cut in 37 of 85 starts and earned a little more than $258,000, which isn’t exactly a killing when you consider travel expenses and paying a caddie.
Just maintaining a Korn Ferry Tour card is hard work, and Thompson eventually lost his with poor play in 2018. He went back to Q-School that fall and shot 14-under-par 274 at first stage, but it wasn’t good enough. He missed a playoff by one stroke.
“This is likely the last time the professional world will ever see my golf swing,” Thompson wrote in an Instagram post following the round. “I have overcome the putting yips and full-blown swing yips. Have given blood, sweat and tears for this game. I am not going to be selfish and sacrifice the rest of my life for this game. I am going to be responsible and provide for my fiancée and further family. I’m sorry for this post. #goodrun”
If you want an example of the most haunting truth in professional golf, this is it. There are quite literally thousands of golfers, many of whom have no status on any tour, who could potentially beat a PGA Tour player over the course of one or two days. The parity of golf makes it fragile, tempting and unrelenting, with the difference between success and failure usually measured by a couple of unforced errors.
Thompson’s words were those of someone who had lived his whole life training to be a professional golfer. He was home-schooled, growing up at TPC Eagle Trace in Coral Springs, Fla., where he would practice several hours per day. While I didn’t know him personally growing up, we competed in South Florida junior tournaments together and it was customary for him to win by 10 or more strokes. He was born and bred to be a professional.
His sister became a superstar. His brother made nearly 400 starts on the PGA and Korn Ferry tours. But after a solid college career at LSU and five subsequent years of playing good but not exceptional golf professionally, Thompson hadn’t reached his siblings’ lofty standards. He felt the pain that most professional golfers have to face at some point.
It could be argued that second stage is the most pressure-packed environment in the game, replacing the old Q-School that sent players directly to the PGA Tour. It’s a shame the event isn’t televised, because it puts the highest level of golf in a totally different perspective.
The most acute pain for professionals is often felt at the second stage of Korn Ferry Tour Q-School, which concluded Friday. If a player advances through one of the five qualifying sites, he is guaranteed conditional status on the Korn Ferry Tour and will have the opportunity to be fully exempt depending on his play at next month’s final stage. Succeeding at second stage gives a player a legitimate chance to reach the PGA Tour.
If a player fails to advance, the outlook is bleak. He’ll have no status on the Korn Ferry Tour and will possibly have to scramble for status on the Mackenzie Tour or PGA Tour Latinoamerica. It could mean going on the “Monday Q Tour,” where players try their luck gaining entry into PGA Tour events via Monday qualifiers. Many will end up playing mini-tours.
For that reason, it could be argued that second stage is the most pressure-packed environment in the game, replacing the old Q-School that sent players directly to the PGA Tour. It’s a shame the event isn’t televised, because it puts the highest level of golf in a totally different perspective. Suddenly it seems trivial when a guy has to settle for a six-figure check because he missed a putt to win.
Despite his emotional Instagram post, Thompson got back to playing the game and fought for every inch it would give him. By midway through this year, he had posted no meaningful tournament results and was biding his time for another Q-School shot.
Through a mutual friend, Thompson and I played together in a foursome at PGA National’s Champion Course this summer. He had been working on his game every day, even setting up shop at the Breakers Resort, where a first-stage qualifier would be contested.
The conditions at PGA National the day we played weren’t akin to what players face during the Honda Classic, but it’s still a fierce golf course that can bite you at any moment. Thompson, a player with no status on any tour and a guy who considered leaving the game for another occupation, shot a 5-under 65 from the tips, seemingly without much effort. If it’s possible to say, he left several shots on the course and didn’t even look to be playing his best golf. The rest of us, all single-digit handicaps, might as well have been playing badminton.
When our group reached the notoriously difficult par-3 17th hole, Thompson hit his tee shot to about 20 feet and then grabbed another ball. This time he flipped a right-handed 8-iron upside down and swung lefty, hitting this tee shot inside of his previous effort. This wasn’t exactly beginner’s luck – a few years ago I watched him hit a 296-yard left-handed drive on the range at the PGA Merchandise Show Demo Day.
The final hole of our round was the reachable par-5 18th. Thompson split the fairway with a drive of 300 yards and then hit the best shot I’ve ever seen from a playing partner. Using a 3-wood from 280 yards out, he smashed a bullet to about 10 feet.
The round with Thompson reminded me of the scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon’s character, an intellectual prodigy, throws an equation down on the desk and tells an MIT instructor, “Do you have any idea how easy this is for me?”
But still, Thompson had little to show for such mastery of the game. The two of us sharing a cart had no playing status anywhere and had never started a PGA Tour event. Only one of us is a professional golfer. After he made the eagle putt on the last hole and we walked off to the clubhouse, he explained the reason why.
“I can shoot 65 when there’s nothing on the line, but playing in competition is a different animal,” Thompson said.
That’s when you realize the burden professional golfers carry. It makes you want to root for players who have to overcome mental roadblocks while their performance decides their livelihood.
Thompson’s practice at the Breakers paid off as he finished tied for second in the first-stage qualifier there in early October. That set him up for this week’s second-stage qualifier at Plantation (Fla.) Preserve Golf Club, where he shot a tournament-low 8-under 63 in the third round and went on to earn medalist honors. Thompson regained conditional status on the Korn Ferry Tour and will have a chance to improve that at the final stage next month in Orlando.
When I talked to him this time, he sounded determined and focused.
“It’s relieving to get here, but my work isn’t done,” Thompson said. “The goal is to have guaranteed starts next year so I’m still working hard. If I keep improving what I’m doing, I’ll be ready for December.”
Most professional golfers have to fail several times before making it. At Q-School, there are players ready to walk away from the game and players who are close to breaking through.
Sometimes, as with Thompson, they are the same person.
Curtis Thompson’s professional walk sometimes has been filled anxiety and heartache, but he keeps grinding. Photo: Michael Cohen, Getty Images
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