Meet The King Of Q-School

Michael Allen
PGA Tour
Michael Allen

This post is from CNBC sports producer Tom Rotunno:

The PGA Tour Qualifying School, “Q-school” as it’s known, is one of the best sporting dramas around. It’s the last resort for those hoping to earn the chance to play on the PGA Tour. Currently in the second of three elimination stages, the event determines the last 25 players to receive their PGA Tour cards for the next year.

It’s a grueling test where one missed shot can mean the difference between playing on golf’s biggest stage or spending another season in one of the minor league circuits.

In 2007, over 1,300 players applied to Q-school. 26 players (the result of a tie) qualified for their tour card. While talent and luck are the obvious differentiators, the numbers would indicate that winning a tour card is a 50-1 shot. I spoke with San Diego State statistics professor Jim Lackritz, one of the best sports statistics number crunchers around. He informed me you’d have a better shot at the following than earning your tour card:

*Winning a 5-team parlay bet on the NFL this weekend (31-1)

*Getting audited by the IRS at least one over the next 3 years (33-1)

*Being killed sometime in the next two years in any sort of transportation accident: (38-1)

With those things in mind, I decided to call the man known as the “King of Q-school”, 49 year-old Michael Allen, who turned pro in 1984. Allen’s been to Q-school so often he can’t remember for certain the exact number of times he’s attended. He does know he’s advanced to the final week of Q-school 13 times – earning a PGA Tour card 9 times.

It’s one thing for a fan to look at the score and say this guy missed it by one stroke but what’s the fine line between making it and not making it from a players perspective?
Well that’s one shot over six days in the finals. It’s hard to blame it all on just one bad shot. The hard thing is when it comes down to the last three holes. You’ve worked hard all week or all month and now you have one shot and it’s nerve racking. It’s all down to one swing and “can I pull this off?” But that’s what is great about it. Unless you’re Tiger Woods or one of the top players routinely playing for championships, this is your championship. That’s how you get to challenge yourself, can I make this swing when I really have to and everything is on the line? It’s a hard thing to do.

What is it like as you get older and the competition gets younger?
It always amazes me when I go out there. There are so many good young players but they don’t have the experience to play rounds that are real difficult. You know you always hear about the guy at the club that shot 63 and he was half drunk. Yeah, that’s easy because you don’t care. Shoot 63 when everything is on the line. When I play I’m playing for my family, for my job, to support everything that’s dear to me. Are my kids going to go to junior college or have a chance to go to college? So it’s extremely grueling and you have to focus on being as prepared as you possibly can be. I see a lot of kids that go out there and hit a few balls and expect to do well. It doesn’t usually work that way.

How does having a wife and kids to support change your perspective when you are out there?
For me it’s become far more important to get on tour. Heck, when I was young I could go back to Europe, play mini-tours, I was having fun no matter where I was playing. But once you’ve been on tour you have an opportunity to start living a little better lifestyle, your bills go up and without question it gets more and more important. It becomes imperative for me to get back out there on tour. I don’t have a choice. I have to make it.

Any Q-school moments that stand out?
Last time I had to go it was at PGA West. I got off to a bad start and it didn’t look good. I played the last 66 holes 15 under par without a bogey. That’s what the school does, it makes you play one shot at a time. You gotta get yourself in that mindset.

Once you’ve experience the PGA Tour how hard is it to go back to the Nationwide Tour?
For me now, it would be tough. It’s a great opportunity for a lot of the young guys. I still wish more would go to Europe and other places to try and have some life experiences. One of the great things golf has given me is the opportunity to travel and see different parts of the world and see how different people live. But the Nationwide Tour is a great opportunity for young guys but financially it would be very difficult to go back. When you are used to playing in tournaments with large crowds and the best players in the world it is hard to give that up. It’s why we’re all in it.

A record number of guys made more than $1 million on the PGA Tour this year. You made nearly One million but almost didn’t make the cut and would have had to go back to Q-school again.

How do you feel about the level of competition each week?
That’s the thing about the money that’s out there. There’s just so much more money out there now. I think it’s also part of Tiger not playing. He takes an average of about $800,000-900,000 thousand a week out of the purse. Not having him there gives everybody else more opportunity.

How has Q-school changed?
It’s getting harder. It used to be that if you were 10 under in the late stages, you’d be in pretty good shape. Now you better get to 14 or you’re probably not going to make it. Guys are just better. The equipment now is phenomenal. They work out. When I started on tour you didn’t work out until you were 40 and trying to stay in the game and keep your body going, now the gym is filled with Camilo Villegas pumping iron at 7am. The world has changed.

How do you like the "King Q-school" nickname?
Well it’s something Tiger will be called. It’s the one thing I have on him. Seriously though, it just means I’ve played a lot of really hard rounds and survived a really tough environment out there. It’s probably not the way you want to make your career but I’ve been able to support my family and keep doing something I love to do.

What are you hearing about 2009? How much do the players talk about what is happening in the economy?
We’re told our sponsorships on the PGA Tour are very solid through 2009, even 2010. We’re still in very good shape and we may have a little more money out there than last year. I hear the Senior Tour is going to be hit harder than we are.

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