- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2005

BOARDMAN, Ohio — Aspiring golf professional John Brandley slumps on a bench in front of Mill Creek Golf Course just south of Youngstown. Seven hours and 36 holes of stressful stroke-play golf have left him in a reflective daze.

“I don’t really care. I mean I do and I don’t,” says Brandley, 23, who has just failed the PGA of America’s Playing Ability Test for the fourth time, posting rounds of 80 and 91 on Mill Creek’s 6,173-yard, par-70 North Course to miss the target score by 15 strokes.

“It hurts your pride because I know I can compete at this level,” he adds. “I just have to prove that I can handle the stress of the event. It will all be fine, man. I’ll get this thing.”

Brandley has no delusions about his place in the sport. The Cleveland native doesn’t envision himself jacking it up with Tiger and Vijay on the PGA Tour. He works six days and 60 hours a week at Golf Galaxy, a retail golf chain. He’s a two-handicapper on those rare occasions when he can get away from the store. Golf is his future but not competitive golf. Eventually, he would like to become a swing instructor and give lessons at Golf Galaxy, where he’s currently a club repair specialist. In fact, the set of sticks that has just betrayed him was built with his own hands.

Like most of the others in the 20-player field at Mill Creek, Brandley wants to pass the PAT so he can enter the PGA of America’s apprentice program, a 600-hour, three-level process involving everything from business and accounting to agronomy and swing theory that requires a combination of intense study and practical application. The goal is to earn an official license from the PGA of America, the game’s 18,000-member grass-roots organization.

And membership has its privileges, particularly in the financial department. By and large, non-PGA members are the cart-charging, range-picking grunts of golf course operation. They work the same brutal dawn-to-dusk, weekends-and-holidays hours as their licensed brethren but on a lower pay scale and almost always without health and retirement benefits.

No decent course, public or private, would allow a nonlicensed player to teach or hire such an individual as its head pro, making the two most attractive revenue streams available to the club pro (shop sales and lessons) virtually nonexistent for the unlicensed.

And nobody gets licensed without first passing the PAT, a one-day, two-round grind with a national failure rate of more than 80 percent.

The PAT is the club pro’s version of Q-school. And while there’s no purse at a PAT, make no mistake — there’s plenty of money at stake. Fact is, playing for a purse can’t compare to playing for the right to pursue a chosen profession, and the relentless resulting pressure is notorious for turning near-scratch stallions into suddenly hapless hacks.

“I know I’m good enough,” says Brandley, speaking as much to himself as to you. “I’ve just got to find a better way of coping with the pressure.”

It’s 6 p.m. on the eve of the Northern Ohio PGA Section’s May PAT. Brandley, at that point just another name next to yours on a pairing sheet, is working late at Golf Galaxy. You, decidedly not working, are rolling a few putts on the practice green at Mill Creek Golf Course and feeling deliciously clever and competent.

Although you have no intention of entering the PGA’s apprenticeship program, you have secured a spot in the next day’s PAT. All it took was a few online keystrokes and $130, and the Northern Ohio Section has given you a 7:06 tee time. No credentials were required, not even a valid handicap. Your index is currently 5.8, but you marvel at the fact that you just as easily could have slipped into the frame with an index in the high double-digits.

You chose this PAT outside of Youngstown simply because it fit your schedule. According to the PGA of America’s Web site, there is a PAT conducted in some state virtually every day between April and October. Aspiring PGA members can take the test as often as they like but must record a passing score two years or less before applying to the apprenticeship program.

You have heard legions of horror stories about the test, but a loop around Mill Creek has left you feeling supremely confident. A short, somewhat tight layout designed by legendary Donald Ross of Pinehurst No.2 acclaim, Mill Creek’s only real defense is a set of small, grainy, sloping Bermuda greens. You did 3-putt three times during your practice round. And a lack of familiarity with the course also cost you two lost balls and a closing double bogey. But thanks to four birdies and some solid ball-striking, you still posted your basic ho-hum 74.

The PAT target score for Mill Creek is 156: double the course rating from the middle tees (70.7 x 2 = 141.4), add 15 strokes (156.4) and drop the decimal (156). That’s a pair of 78s. Straight off a five-hour drive from the District, you slopped around in 74 sight unseen.

Disaster might await others. For the sake of the story, you secretly hope one of your two playing partners goes Krakatoa. You haven’t decided whether you’re rooting harder for club-chucking mania or a breakdown of the weepy variety, but you’re definitely in favor of some manner of emotional eruption.

As you leave the layout for a pre-tournament meal at the recommended Youngstown Crab Co. (nothing says seafood like industrial Ohio), you put your personal target score at 140. Somewhere, Fate is grinning at your hubris.

As you shake hands with your playing partners, Brandley and Daniel Personey of Cleveland’s Mayfield Country Club, reality drops an EZ-GO on your psyche. Two seemingly obvious thoughts assault you at the same time as you address your opening drive. First, the only competitive golf you have experienced regularly in a decade has been of the match-play variety. In stroke play, it is theoretically possible, however unlikely, to play a hole forever without actually finishing. Second, you are now terrified, as you should have been from the moment you stroked the $130 entry check, that your absurd charade could devolve into a complete distraction to your playing partners — both of whom, you quickly learn, are PAT veterans, thus PAT failures with career-shaping scores at stake.

The large muscle groups responsible for full swings are somewhat unaffected by this sudden onset of grip-choking tension. The smaller muscles that rule the putting stroke, however, are significantly more impaired by your inability to breathe or quell the palsy that now afflicts your hands. The cup seems thimble-sized and blurred. Three-putt madness ensues.

Though the precise details are somewhat fuzzy, scorecard notes later explain that you 3-putt 10 times over 36 holes and need a shocking 80 putts to post an ego-galling 163 (81-82). To put that horrific number in perspective, consider that Paul Goydos needed just 95 putts over four rounds at last week’s St. Jude Classic.

As you fantasize about being a rototiller for the first time in your life and study a leader board that shows you tied for 12th (with Personey) among the 20 applicants, you play the blame game. You blame a silly Scot named Ross. You blame greens that run six on the stimpmeter into the grain and about 14 with it; as one tour player once sagely said, ‘Bermuda grass might be useful for something, if you could smoke it.’ You blame a Cobra putter that has since taken up residence just off the Ohio Turnpike near scenic Niles (Exit 218).

Thankfully, neither Brandley nor Personey comes close enough to the target score to blame your presence. Brandley contracts a case of the same tragicomedy that afflicts you on the greens each time he sets foot in a bunker. He spends more time in the sand than Rommel in World War II, shoveling and shanking his way to a slew of sand-bound triple-bogeys en route to an afternoon 91.

Personey brings a caddie, but he needs a lesson. His hands are desperately behind the ball at address, guaranteeing too much hand action during the swing. And yet the guy still seems incredulous as he snap-hooks his way around the property.

But the news isn’t all moribund for the PAT field at Mill Creek. Six of the 20 players card 156 or better to pass the test. Scores range from 146 (Kevin Lynch of local Windmill Lakes Golf Club) to 193 (unattached and unabashed Gregory Miller). The 30 percent success rate is considerably higher than the national average.

Another Cleveland native, 26-year-old John Gaydos, authors the day’s feel-good story, coasting home an 18-footer for birdie on his 35th hole and managing a par on the treacherous 450-yard closing hole to pass the PAT on the number (156 — 82-74).

“You don’t know how good it felt when that putt went down on 17,” says the newly married Gaydos, who is hoping the successful PAT will help him land an assistant’s position at Fowler’s Mill Golf Course in nearby Chesterfield. “I knew I wanted to be a club pro since I was a freshman in high school. I don’t like practicing, so I never had any PGA Tour aspirations. But I wanted to be around the game, so it was the logical option. Now it’s official. I passed the PAT, and I can get in the program. Who needs a car? I’m going to float home. I did it, man. What a feeling.”

PAT elation will have to wait for 70 percent of the field. But failure rarely translates into submission, as the overwhelming majority of PGA members needed three tries or more to pass the PAT.

“The first thing I’m going to do when I get home is look up the information on the next PAT,” says Brandley, still sprawled on his bench more than an hour after the event. “Then I’m going to have a few drinks, get a little messy and try to forget this one. I’ll be worthless tomorrow. But I’ll be over it and signed up for another one by tomorrow night.”

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