John Feinstein has rightly been acclaimed as one of America's best sportswriters. I know him mainly from his books about golf, starting with A Good Walk Spoiled in 1995, to The Majors in 1998, The Open in 2002, and now his new Tales From Q School. He has written so many books you can hardly count them, including, most recently, Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four, co-authored with legendary basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski; Next Man Up: A Year Behind the Lines in the NFL (if you included all the subtitles, this paragraph would never end); and the paperback re-issue of Season on the Brink, his season-long profile of Bobby Knight.
Feinstein faces one sort of challenge writing about sporting events -- and sporting figures -- already well known. He has to find and create drama where the big, on-stage drama has already taken place in public, and is already known to the fan. At this task, discovering the stories behind the flash, he has no peer.
In Tales From Q School, however, Feinstein faces another problem entirely: How to make us care about a bunch of golfers who -- for the most part -- nobody knows at all. He has succeeded so brilliantly that Tales From Q School becomes the very best of tension-fraught adventures, with some episodes literally hair-raising in intensity.
SO WHAT IS "Q SCHOOL," AND WHY SHOULD YOU CARE? The PGA Tour, the ruling body of professional tournament golf, holds an annual, three-stage tournament to admit new members. At each stage, only a certain number of players passes through to the next stage. The third stage, the real back- and heart-breaker, is a six-round tournament that determines which 30 (or so) players will get a PGA Tour Card, entitling them to full exempt status in golf's big-time.
Once, an amateur player might enter the first stage of Q School, just to see what he could do. Usually, as the pros say, "he couldn't play dead." That's rare nowadays; the Tour has tightened up its entry rules. Now, at every stage, every golfer can really play. And, at every stage, these golfers play for their very living: For status on the "big tour," or on the fallback Nationwide Tour (golf's AAA ball), or on mini-tours, like the Hooters Tour (you can imagine).
Q School entrants may include veterans trying to re-qualify for pro golf -- somehow their game has disappeared; they've finished too far down the money list. They've got no other option. Perhaps the most startling of those in last year's Qualifying School? Lee Janzen, two-time winner of the U.S. Open. (He didn't pass.)
IN A GOOD WALK SPOILED, FEINSTEIN FOLLOWED three unknowns in addition to the famous players then on Tour: Brian Henninger, who won twice on the PGA Tour and led the 1995 Masters through three rounds; Paul Goydos, who describes himself as winning "once a decade" (he has won twice); and Jeff Cook, the least successful of the three. We see two of them again in Tales from Q School, Cook and Henninger.
We meet Bob Heintz, a 35-year-old Yale graduate who plays just well enough to make a living (grossing $355,000) on the Nationwide Tour, but not quite well enough to stay on the PGA Tour. We meet B. J. Staten, who plays beautifully through the second stage, through 16 holes of the last round, six under par, well inside the cut line, and then hits two balls in the water on the 17th.
These and dozens of others populate Feinstein's pages, and he devotes a hero's attention to each -- you marvel at Feinstein's capacity for hard work, for long interviews, for taking notes, for endless walking. He seems to have seen everything, been everywhere, the sportswriter's Paul Johnson:
As Kelly Gibson...put it, "I've seen the pressures of Q School make a grown man cry."
Who have you seen cry at Q School? Gibson was asked.
Gibson smiled. "Me," he said. "And I'm not making it up."
FEINSTEIN'S GIFT -- AND THE RESULT OF HIS HARD WORK -- is the way people open their hearts to him. Two quotes, from the end of the book, after the Q School's final round. Dan Forsman, a 47-year-old Tour veteran, has had to try to re-qualify to play. He fails by a shot. Peter Tomasulo, at 24 just starting his career, also comes up a shot short.
"From the moment I shook hands until the moment I got to my car, I really don't remember anything," Tomasulo said. "It's all a blank."
Forsman: "I'd spent hours on the driving range and the putting green working toward one thing, and I'd come up one shot short. Those two golf courses were my field of dreams, and now there was nothing left for me to do except go home. All the years I've played golf, I can't remember a more melancholy feeling than right at that moment."
A father-son triumph brings the book to a joyful climax: Tour veteran Jay Haas watches son Billy birdie the last two holes to get his card. I'd love to quote the whole story, but it's half a dozen pages of riveting action, and it would sound corny just to quote the ending.
MAYBE TALES FROM Q SCHOOL WON'T APPEAL to a non-golfer. Somehow I suspect that anyone who loves a good story will love this book. I can't wait to leave it alone long enough to read it again.
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