By Dave Hannigan
To fully understand the significance of Richard Coughlan’s achievement in securing his U.S. PGA Tour card via the qualifying tournament in California earlier this month, it is necessary to know the story of Mac O’Grady.
Mac O’Grady made 17 journeys through the arduous ritual known as Q School before finally getting his card in 1982. To mark his success, he bought 17 baseball bats, inscribed a certain year on each barrel with a felt-tip pen, and then smashed every single one against a tree.
"Hell on earth, absolute hell on earth, there is no other way to describe it," Coughlan said. "You cannot believe how hard it is. You have to perform so well for so long that sometimes I struggle to find anything to compare it too. The pressure is something else. Getting up at 5 a.m. every day for eight days and going out to play for your livelihood takes a lot out of you. Heading out to play the last round, I was absolutely shattered."
Shattered but within touching distance of the grail. Five rounds in, Coughlan was 23 under, nestling comfortably in the top 10 in a tournament where the first 35 finishers gain automatic passage to the PGA Tour. Adrenalin superseded his fatigue and a fitness regime that planed almost 30 pounds from his frame kicked in. A bogey on the second served as an early wake-up call and, thereafter, he produced the sort of solid golf required to navigate the last perilous day of qualifying. Nobody wants to be the guy who blows up on the final day, squanders a great position and dooms himself to another stint on the satellite tours.
"I was nervous, real nervous starting off. So much can happen. After that bogey, I kept telling myself not to panic," Coughlan said. "When I birdied the 15th, I knew that I was almost there. I made a couple of good up-and-down pars before that, but when I got that hole in three shots I knew I was nearly there. After that, I just had to get the ball over the water on 17 and I was home and dry."
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An even-par round of 72 yielded a share of 8th place, a check for $25,000 and an instant reversal of fortunes. On Monday, Dec. 4, the 26-year-old from Tullamore, Co. Offaly, was down to his last few bucks but with a modicum of success comes a higher profile and all the accoutrements. The prize money put him back in the black and immediately, the offers of endorsements came rolling in. Every golfer on the Tour is a clothes-horse-cum-billboard and having already inked deals with Ping, Titleist and Sportsmaster, Coughlan freely admits that he now regards himself as "a commodity."
"You gotta make a living while you can and I’m determined to make the most of every opportunity. I’ve been through a couple of really bad years. I was probably fortunate to leave college and get straight on the tour at my first attempt. I got a smell of the big time straightaway and it’s very hard to give that up once you get a taste for it. Anything less is such a letdown."
Since 1990, only 27 percent of Q School graduates have performed well enough during their subsequent year on the Tour to retain their cards. Having become one of those sorry statistics at the end of 1998, Coughlan endured two tough seasons in the wilderness. He spent the last year toiling in the anonymity of the Hooters Tour, preparing himself for the lottery of qualifying. Through it all, like most Irish athletes who have buffed and honed their talent in the American collegiate system, this graduate of Clemson University retained a supreme faith in his own ability.
"This time around, I will approach it differently," Coughlan said. "Once I joined the tour that first time, I played every practice round, played every pro-am I was invited to and went to every tournament because I felt I had to prove myself. I’m better able to manage myself now so I’ll be choosier about when I play and who I play with. I will pace myself better. But also I’m a much better player now than I was then. I’m putting better than I’ve ever done, my scores over the past week show that, and I’ve always believed that I had the game to make it to the next level."
A tough year kicks off with the Tucson Open in Arizona next month. From then on, that sort of self-belief will be at a premium.