As Scott Brown and Matt Davidson know all too well, this is where things start to get interesting.
On Oct. 24 at Florence Country Club, the two cruised through the last day of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament's first stage. North Augusta's Brown, a former NCAA Division II All-American at USC Aiken, continued his solid season with an 11-under-par 269, tied for third.
Davidson, a former Furman player living in Chapel Hill, N.C., overcame a third-round 73 with a closing 68 to tie for 13th. He and Brown - who play today-Saturday at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga., one of six national sites for the second stage of "Q-school" - are part of an 18-player contingent with South Carolina ties that advanced, plus six other S.C. players who were exempt from first stage.
So far, so good. But the first stage was a relatively low hurdle, with 21-23 players from each of 13 sites moving on. The second stage is a different animal.
Besides the 200-300 first-stage survivors, the competition includes Nationwide Tour and PGA Tour players looking to secure or reclaim their playing exemptions. The bar is raised significantly as a precursor to the ulcer-inducing final stage.
Two books, most recently one by John Feinstein ("Tales from Q-School"), have been written about the final stage's six-round marathon, scheduled for Dec. 2-7 this year in West Palm Beach, Fla. But the second stage has its own terrors.
Brown knows. In four tries, he's never made it past the second stage. Last year, he missed by two shots.
"I don't look back," he said. "You could do that, but you'd kill yourself."
Davidson's perspective is slightly different. In 2004, fresh from an All-Southern Conference career with the Paladins, his goal was to reach the final stage and earn a spot on the Nationwide Tour. Stunningly, he shot 10-under in La Quinta, Calif., and became a PGA Tour rookie at age 23.
"It was a great thing," he said. "I had a great three (stages) putting and chipping, and it just worked out."
but not for long; Davidson was among 70 percent of Q-school graduates who fail to stick on the PGA Tour, making six of 20 cuts in 2005 and losing his card. He's made it as far as the second stage once in three attempts since.
"It was definitely that (he was too green in 2005)," he said. "But there's no guarantee you'll ever play the PGA Tour, so you never turn down the opportunity. I would've had a better chance (to stick) with a year or two on the Nationwide Tour, but you just make the best of it."
Both players have done just that. In 2009, Brown and Davidson finished 1-2 on the minor-league eGolf Professional Tour (formerly Tarheel Tour) money list, earning $142,362 and $138,269, respectively. Brown won twice, while Davidson had three runner-up finishes before claiming the season-ending tour championship for the second straight year.
"A good year, solid all year," Brown said. "My putter's been hot; I made a lot of 20- and 30-footers, which you have to do to win. My third year (on the eGolf Tour), I'm becoming more comfortable, and winning breeds confidence."
Davidson's final-week victory was "a boost, absolutely. It was nice to do that in a pressure situation, and it gave me confidence" for Q-school.
He laughed. "Of course, it was the same last year, and I didn't do so well. So there's no guarantee."
Brown, in fact, said Q-school is "not a big deal for me anymore. I play golf for a living, and the money we're playing for ... I made $152,000 this year (on the eGolf and NGA Hooters tours). I can't find a job making that."
He works with instructor Mark Immelman (brother of 2008 Masters champion Trevor) to forge a game for the long haul, not just Q-school. "You get one chance a year to get through it," Brown said. "I'd love to play at the next level, but I can play the mini-tours the rest of my life if I have to."
Davidson understands that; he missed half of 2008 with a shoulder injury and didn't know how he would perform this year. Never the longest player, he's worked on improving his distance off the tee to take pressure off his short game.
He, too, won't be crushed if Q-school again denies his PGA Tour ambitions; he said he would settle for something less, for now.
"The Nationwide Tour would be a promotion from what I'm doing now, for sure," he said. "But there's still a long way to go. I've got to take second stage first."