Q School History, Part 1: “Home Pros” and Lean Purses

Jackson Bradley made a decision in 1953 to step back from club work and compete full-time on the pro circuit. “I entered 11 tournaments on the winter tour and made a check in eight of them–still couldn’t cover expenses,” said Bradley. “We called these things tournaments,” he added ruefully. “Should have called  them exercises in diminishing return.”

When he was told by Jimmy Demaret that River Oaks Country Club in Houston had an opening for a head pro, Bradley applied for the job, got the offer and took it. “I was addicted to the competition, otherwise I wouldn’t have spent so much time on tour,” said Bradley. “But what happened in ’53 knocked a little sense into me. I was addicted, but I had to walk away.”

Before PGA Tour qualifying could invest itself with life-and-death urgency, the money and prestige at stake had to attain certain heights. The 1960s and early ’70s are when that happened. What people find fascinating about tour qualifying is its stunning lack of mercy, but Q School didn’t invent its cruel arithmetic. All it did was capture in concentrated form those raw, unforgiving days when the pro tour stole from everyone and gave back very little.

In Jackson Bradley’s playing days, discretion could indeed be the better part of valor. The golf vernacular of the 1950s and early ’60s still included the courtly term “home pro”–which is what you called a PGA member who worked at a club instead of grinding it out on tour. The term bespeaks an egalitarian time in the golf profession, when a top-caliber player like Tom Nieporte might decide he was better off being head professional at the prestigious Winged Foot Golf Club in New York than following the sun, playing hard for small rewards.

In the case of Nieporte and others, the home pro was home because he wanted to be. If professional golf were the military, he would have been a respected reservist, foregoing the ego-gratification of the front lines in favor of a stable domestic life and a relatively steady (if limited) income. Whenever career club pros like Jay Overton  or Bob Ford  briefly join golf’s superstars on the leaderboard of a PGA Championship, it’s a reminder to us that life on tour hasn’t always been the automatic choice of those who possessed the talent for it.

Only when the pot was filled high with real gold did the voluntary home pro become more or less extinct. At that point, access to the professional tour become a universal goal among gifted players. Television rights were centralized in 1962 and ’63, which captured sponsor interest and geysered up purse money throughout the ensuing years. In the nine-year period from 1952 to ’61, purse totals had reflected the tour’s heartening post-war progress, growing by an annual average of about $100,000. But that was just meal money compared to what ensued. In the nine years from ’62 to 71, the average yearly bump in purse money exceeded $530,000. 

For talented players,  the decision to pursue a tour career was quickly becoming a no-brainer. American culture was glorifying sports as a field of human endeavor, meaning that, in golf, any red-blooded male with a dreamer’s chance of reaching the tour was compelled to try it–repeatedly. It was then that Q School became the seething competitive cauldron it still is today.

The tournament’s predatory nature was feathered over in the earliest Q Schools, which took place as purses were improving but the tour remained a housepet of the club pros’ labor guild. Q Schools from the 1965-67 period had a domesticated, Ward Cleaver quality to them. The home pros who designed tour qualifying would send their recruits to the battlefield for eight grueling rounds, but along the way they consoled and mentored them, like brothers in a low-key fraternity. On the Sunday midway through 1965 qualifying–a Sunday, you may recall, that had been “reserved for rest, relaxation and study”–the school’s 49 participants were invited by PGA National’s owner, John D. MacArthur, for a cocktail reception in the clubhouse. At the tour schools of today, players pay $4,000 to enter (instead of the few hundred originally charged), and they may or may not get free breakfast as part of the package.

Next: Part 2, Raising the Bar

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