The view from the 17th tee at PGA West’s Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course is so menacing that it is called “Alcatraz.” Somewhere, hidden by 220 yards of water and a formidable outcropping of boulders, is a small, green island of freedom.
Nathan Tyler pulled a 5-iron from his Nike golf bag last week in La Quinta, Calif., and absorbed the scene the way a skydiver looks out an airplane window in choppy weather.
“It was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been on a golf course,” he says now.
After six years of playing on every conceivable golf mini-tour, from the Cape Breton Celtic Classic in Nova Scotia to the Gaylord Tree Tops Open in Michigan, Tyler had found a hopeful escape from his own golfing Alcatraz.
He was one shot above the cut-line at the Web.com Qualifying School, the sixth day and 106th hole of anxiety. It was Kevin Costner in “Tin Cup,” a pay-the-mortgage-or-go-home-in-tears moment.
“Q-School can freak you out,” says Tyler. “Over the last two rounds, I did a lot of freaking out.”
Tyler’s shot landed perfectly and rolled to within 2 feet of the cup. Birdie. Twenty minutes later he was covered by the vast umbrella of the PGA Tour, awarded the opportunity of a young man’s life.
“What I do is golf; it’s my life,” says Tyler, a Sabino High School and UA grad (psychology, Class of 2007). “In this business, everyone’s gambling with money and with life. There is no retirement package. Getting to this stage is huge.”
The Web.com Tour isn’t the PGA Tour, but it’s the only way you can get there any more. But perhaps the hardest part is first getting to the Web.com Tour; do you realize more than 4,000 golfers entered this year’s four-part Qualifying School?
Tyler made it by two strokes, even though he shot 13-under par over six days.
Now he has regular playing privileges, a space reserved in the first eight Web.com events of 2014, an intriguing series of tournaments to be played in Chile, Colombia, Panama, Brazil and in Texas, Georgia and Louisiana.
Essentially, the top 50 Web.com money winners will advance to the PGA Tour in 2015.
“I’ll tell you this, Nathan hasn’t taken any shortcuts; He’s taken it block by block,” says Tucson attorney Burt Kinerk, who has been his manager/advisor for five years. “He’s a learner. He’s going to be really good.”
None of this comes easily.
Tyler was the sixth man on Arizona’s 2004 Pac-12 championship golf team, finishing 25 strokes behind UA ace Henry Liaw, just another face on a team that also included consensus All-American Chris Nallen.
But through perseverance and progress, Tyler is now the only active touring pro from that team.
“Golf can be a bit nerve-wracking and crazy,” he says.
And he should know.
A year ago, upon winning the Texas State Open, he was informed the $57,000 owed him by a now-defunct mini-tour was not available. (He months later recouped that sum). He has played in the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black. He beat a field of 156 qualifiers to earn the last spot in the Farmer’s San Diego Open at Torrey Pines.
“It’s such a struggle,” says Kinerk. “But Nathan’s been a good commander. He runs a good ship.”
This year Tyler was the runaway star on the All-American Gateway Tour, earning $96,258 from January through April, mostly in the greater Phoenix area. It wasn’t all profit; he had to pay $1,150 of his own money to enter a tournament.
He followed that by qualifying for the PGA Tour’s version of the Canadian Tour, earned $30,468 in limited appearances, and then peaked at the Q-School, winning stage two in Plantation, Fla., shooting a remarkable 23-under par. (He was also paid $10,000).
Now there’ll be no more entry fees or early Monday qualifying rounds, one of 156 hopeful faces, for a spot or two in the Preferred Health Systems Wichita Open.
Opportunity is a pro golfer’s currency and Tyler is for the first time flush with opportunity.
Tucson has produced just five Tour players: Tom Tatum, Willie Wood, Rich Barcelo, Bob Gaona and Michael Thompson.
All required entirely different routes to the Big Show; Gaona chased the Tour for 30 years, Thompson got there in one year. Tyler doesn’t care about the timing. He cares about results.
“Once you’ve played enough golf, you understand that it’s all mental,” he says. “At Q-School, I didn’t come close to playing my best. Not even with those back-to-back 66s. You must get the best out of what you’ve got, and that’s what I did.”
Tyler drove from his Phoenix home to spend an early Christmas in Tucson and vows not to touch a golf club again until 2014. If any golfer deserves a break, he does.
He left UA owing more than $30,000 in student-loans, drove thousands of miles to every conceivable Tin Cup Open and has gone through so many stages of Q-School you’d think his name is Nathan Q. Tyler.
But now the Q is gone. The door is open. School is out.