Among the trials in the world of golf, none may be more feared than the PGA Tour's Qualifying School, the six-round winter tournament that determines who gets a full-time spot on the Tour in the coming year - and who will have to scrape by from week to week.
It's considered one of the most grueling experiences in all of sports.
For Neal Lancaster, it wasn't even the toughest thing he has done this month.
Four days after he finished tied for fifth at Q-School, earning his Tour card for the first time since 2005, Lancaster underwent major surgery for a shoulder injury that had bothered him for years. The recovery will keep him out for four months, wiping out the first half of the Tour season while he rehabilitates at home in Smithfield.
Lancaster admits to wondering whether having the surgery was a good idea after what might have been his best performance in years, but reality won out. He hadn't played since a top-20 finish at the Buick Open in August, and he needed a 5 a.m. session with a chiropractor every morning just to make it through Q-School.
"I played 55 holes without a bogey, four out of six rounds without a bogey, so I came home and thought about it," Lancaster said. "I put it off for eight or 10 years, but I thought about it and thought about it."
In the end, the thought of playing another summer on a broken-down shoulder was too much to stomach. The damage was massive. There were multiple bone spurs pinching a tendon and almost an inch of scar tissue under the collarbone and in the socket, the wear and tear of 25 years of golf.
"The doctor actually told me, 'I don't know how you've been able to play any golf,' " Lancaster said.
In recent years, Lancaster hadn't, at least not up to his own standards. He still holds the record for the best nine-hole score in a U.S. Open (29 in 1995 and 1996, a mark tied by Vijay Singh in 2003), but his record in recent years, in the few tournaments he was able to play, was a litany of missed cuts.
He could still play with anyone, as he showed in August. But the pain in his shoulder kept him from playing well very often, and it kept him from playing multiple events in a row.
"I needed to do it and get it over with," Lancaster said. "I couldn't live with the pain. It was just every day, and I had it for a long time. I probably should have done it before Q-School, but I said I'd like to go and try to improve my position anyway."
He did more than just that. He finished second at his second-stage event in Texas, then went to Florida for the final, grueling event and finished ahead of 16 other PGA Tour winners before celebrating with major surgery.
Lancaster now qualifies for a medical exemption, stretching his tour card into the 2011 season. That gives him some breathing room as he tries to win enough money to become totally exempt on the Champions Tour when he turns 50 in September 2012.
That will take around $10 million in career winnings; Lancaster has $6,253,506. If all goes well, he'll start his PGA Tour season - and the second half of his career - in April or May.
"I was playing with a couple guys at Q-School who were talking about how they hate going through this every year," Lancaster said. "I told them, 'Get a good look at me, because this is the last time I'll ever be here.' "
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