PALM BEACH GARDENS, FLORIDA | It could have passed for the Puerto Rico Open. Or maybe a souped-up Web.com Tour event.
We’re not talking about the Honda Classic, which has seen the quality of its field fall into a Bear Trap because of a revamped PGA Tour schedule. We’re talking about the qualifier to get into the Honda Classic, the one-day Monday shootout where more than 150 players signed up and 130 started with four exemptions into the tournament on the line.
These qualifiers have long been a fixture in the professional game and generally garner little more than a footnote in the media guide. To use a March Madness comparison, they are akin to the play-in games that start college basketball’s grand tournament. The only difference is that Monday qualifiers aren’t shown on TV, the odds of advancing through to the tournament are minuscule and even those who qualify aren’t exactly guaranteed anything. This season on the PGA Tour only 14 of the 39 qualifiers have made the cut in the tournament. And for those wondering, only three players since 1986 – including Kenny Knox at the Honda Classic 33 years ago – have won the tournament after qualifying on Monday.
Despite these long odds, Monday qualifiers have only grown in intensity over the years. The remarkable depth on the PGA and Web.com tours has squeezed notable names out of having secure status, forcing many to try their luck against those right out of college. According to the popular Twitter account Monday Q Info, the field of players who signed up for this week’s battle have combined for 47 tour victories with 24 of them having at least one tour victory. Eleven of them have made more than 200 starts on the circuit.
As with all Monday qualifiers, the number of players signing up tends to differ greatly from those who actually play because they have either earned a spot from the prior week or ended up not wanting to play. Regardless, if you follow the game with some regularity, you will recognize a good portion of the names. Robert Allenby has won four times on the PGA Tour. David Lingmerth won the 2015 Memorial Tournament, but has since struggled with injuries. David Hearn has made more than $9 million. Steve Marino has made more than $10 million.
None of them made it through this past Monday. The four who did ranged from former tour players who have earned top-five finishes in past Honda Classics (Erik Compton and Blayne Barber) to complete unknowns to the average fan (Drew Nesbitt and David Pastore). Compton and Nesbitt shared medalist honors with 7-under-par 65s while Barber and Pastore each shot 6-under 66 and then escaped a 7-for-2 playoff finishing on Tuesday morning. This is standard operating procedure each week. Through 11 Monday qualifiers this season on the PGA Tour, the average score to earn the last spot has been 66.2.
Nobody showcases golf’s ridiculous depth more than Nesbitt, a 23-year-old Canadian ranked No. 2,015 in the world ranking. His claim to fame is that he shot 59 in the second round of a PGA Tour Latinoamérica event – 20 strokes better than his first round 79 – by making four eagles in one round. He’s never placed better than a tie for 22nd on the developmental circuit.
He is such an unknown that he had to play in what is referred to as a prequalifier, an event several days before the Monday qualifier. Those who have a certain level of status can bypass these – for example, if you make a PGA Tour cut, you avoid future prequalifiers for the year – but Nesbitt had to shoot a 6-under 66 just to reach Monday. After getting into the field, Nesbitt and his caddie Chris Martin realized they had played themselves into a budget issue. Martin issued a call for help on Twitter, which prompted Canadian comedian Gerry Dee to reach out to the pair, offering to pay for their hotel expenses. Any paycheck would be massive.
“Never leave a putt short. Because you would rather have three extra 4-footers and hope you make all of them than have one miss short in the heart. You need to go low.” – Martin Trainer
“For the guys who have made a couple million for the last three years, that $2,500 for the whole trip doesn’t seem like so much,” Nesbitt joked. “But when you are only making thousands of dollars, it seems like quite a bit more.”
For every top player out on tour, there are seemingly a hundred Drew Nesbitts desperate for a chance to play on the biggest stage. One Web.com Tour player told us that going to an out-of-town Monday qualifier costs roughly $1,000 after you combine flights, hotels, tournament fees (the fee is $100 for a PGA or Web.com tour member, $450 if you are not), food and any other expenses. Keep in mind that there isn’t any money at stake in these shootouts. This is just for a chance to play in a PGA Tour event.
The most frightening part of this is that playing well isn’t good enough. You have to play exceptional golf on what everyone we spoke to agreed are respectable courses only a few shades below your typical tour venue.
Curtis Thompson, brother of the LPGA’s Lexi Thompson, has taken his shot at a plethora of PGA Tour and Web.com Monday qualifiers over the past few months. Here are his last 12 rounds in these events: 65, 66, 71, 70, 65, 67, 75, 66, 67, 69, 68 and 69.
He hasn’t made it into any event yet. In the case of this past Monday for the Honda qualifier, he shot a 3-under 69 and was still three strokes short.
“Dude, it’s insane,” Thompson said. “I haven’t played a down yet. It’s hard because you don’t want to go out trying to destroy the course because if you make a mistake, it could completely take you out of it. I try to play consistently and make a birdie every three holes.”
It’s fair to wonder why players would be willing to put themselves through such torment. The answer is in the success stories of Monday qualifiers.
Take Martin Trainer, winner of last week’s Puerto Rico Open. A little over a year ago, he didn’t have any status on not just the PGA Tour, but the Web.com Tour. That all changed when he Monday qualified into the Web.com Tour’s El Bosque Mexico Championship and won the tournament, which essentially locked up his PGA Tour card. Trainer was supposed to play in this week’s Honda Classic qualifier until he won in Puerto Rico and earned a spot in the field.
Without that initial break last year, Trainer probably wouldn’t be here. He credits his Monday qualifying skills to advice a friend once gave him.
“He told me to never leave a putt short,” Trainer said emphatically. “Because you would rather have three extra 4-footers and hope you make all of them than have one miss short in the heart. You need to go low. That’s all you need to worry about.
“It’s one of the most stressful and difficult things to do in golf.”
After explaining how hard it is to Monday qualify, Trainer humbly admitted that he is no king when it comes to the art of going low with a tournament berth at stake. That title rightfully goes to his former roommate, T.J. Vogel.
Vogel did something last season that, on paper, appears to be physically impossible. The South Florida native used the Monday qualifier to reach a PGA Tour event on eight occasions. He only made three of those eight cuts, but it was still enough for him to earn $110,021 on the year.
There have been others who have taken similar routes and parlayed their Monday prowess into greater success Thursday-Sunday. Patrick Reed got his career started by pulling the trick six times in 2012. Austin Cook can thank Monday qualifiers for sending him on the path to the PGA Tour.
But nobody has done it like Vogel. He now has full status on the Web.com Tour – his not having status last year is what prompted him to Monday qualify so many times in the first place – and doesn’t have to worry too much about them for now.
How did he do it? He carried his own bag, for one. About half of the players attempting to qualify do this. His other method may not be so common, however.
“People always say you just have to fire at pins and play really aggressive, but I never found that to be the best solution,” Vogel explained. “If you short-side yourself and make bogey, that’s a killer in an 18-hole round. If I wasn’t comfortable, I played more conservative.”
There are theories among players as to whether the morning or afternoon wave is the better option. A couple of players mentioned the afternoon being more difficult because conditions are often windier and you have the pressure of knowing the scores that have already been posted.
That may be true, but it still comes down to playing well. Vogel cites that he qualified for last year’s Honda Classic and Valspar Championship in the afternoon wave. Nesbitt was the last group in this past Monday’s qualifier and birdied his final hole in near-darkness to make it.
The odds of making it are low no matter what.
“Honestly, I still don’t know how I was able to do it.”
Another point Vogel brings up about Monday qualifying is that once you get into the tournament, you are usually at a significant disadvantage to everyone because Tuesday is your only day you can play on the course. Mondays are wiped out because of the qualifier and Wednesdays are only for those in the pro-am. Even on Tuesdays, you have to register for the tournament and make sure everything is in order.
“It feels like everything goes really fast,” Vogel said. “I think after my first time Monday qualifying, I just felt like I didn’t want to get in anyone’s way. I would be on the putting green next to Tiger and Rory and I was thinking about not getting in their way. But as the season went on, I realized I had to stop putting those guys on a pedestal.”
It almost feels like it should be the opposite way around. If anyone can say they’ve earned the right to be inside the ropes, it’s the Monday qualifiers who put themselves through torture just for a hope.
Drew Nesbitt survived a field close to the quality of a lower-tier PGA Tour tournament on Monday to make this week’s Honda Classic. Photo: Enrique Berardi, PGA Tour
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