If the road to the PGA Tour is more marathon than sprint - and the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, aka "Q-school," is the toughest test in golf - then the best thing about Matt Hendrix's first-stage performance a week ago might be that he seems to have found his pace.
When the former Clemson All-American wrapped up a third-place finish at Pinehurst, N.C.'s Pinewild Country Club, his scorecard told a story of unspectacular but steady play: no score worse than even-par 72, none better than 3-under 69.
For a player termed "a little streaky" in college by his coach, Larry Penley, that is a significant change.
"That means his game has matured," Penley said. "He doesn't have the bad days."
Hendrix laughed at that characterization. The "bad days" scars of past Q-schools, of highs and lows during a roller-coaster pro career, have made him that way, he said.
"That's kind of the mindset for Q-school," the Aiken native said this week as he practiced in Greenville. "You understand something as simple as 1-under (par) does more for you than anything.
"On par-5s, where you'd go for (the green in two) in a tournament, in Q-school you may lay up, set up that 10-footer for birdie, make sure you don't have the big numbers, take bogey out of play. That's a good way to pull away from the cut line."
He laughed again. "I've done this a few times since '04," he said.
If Hendrix sounds war-weary for a 28-year-old - well, he has seen a lot the past six years.
A member of Clemson's national championship team in 2003, he turned pro after graduation in 2004 and followed the same road traveled by Tigers stars Jonathan Byrd, Lucas Glover, and D.J. Trahan: A year and a half of mini-tours; a solid Nationwide Tour season (2006), capped by a successful run through Q-school, and promotion to the PGA Tour for 2007.
But unlike that trio, Hendrix's next step was a stumble. He made seven of 24 cuts in 2007, his best finish a tie for 31st, and earned $108,269 - nowhere near enough to make the exempt top 125, nor enough for status on the 2008 Nationwide Tour.
He admits he was not ready in 2007. No shame there; since 1991, 30 percent of Q-school graduates have kept their cards, and the attrition rate for first-timers is higher still.
"The first thing was, as young as I was (26), I was on the same level with guys I'd watched on TV and idolized," Hendrix said. "I grew up in a small town, so that was hard to swallow, hard to relax and get comfortable.
"Then, because my Q-school number was low" - 29th of 40 graduates; today, the top 25 make it - "I didn't get many starts early. So by the Masters, I was playing my fourth or fifth event, while most guys were playing their 15th."
Hendrix struggled with travel, caddies, where to eat, all the rookie hurdles. "There was never a tournament where I played well," he said. "The second half of the year, you're trying to make money (to stay on the tour). It's hard to settle down and play your game."
The past two years, Hendrix has regrouped. In 2009, he played five Nationwide Tour events and 14 times on the eGolf Professional Tour, earning a combined $117,281. Best of all, Penley said, he has come to terms with 2007.
"I thought Matt would (stick on the PGA Tour) by now, but I'm not surprised he didn't," Penley said. "That's normal procedure. Once you 'get it,' you've got it, but until then you're searching and searching. (In 2007) he put a lot of pressure on himself, and I don't think he enjoyed or embraced it."
Prior to going to Pinewild, Hendrix practiced with Penley's Clemson team, and the coach said he saw a different player.
"There was a genuine positiveness about him," Penley said. "Matt hasn't found it, but once he does, he can be a mainstay. He has the tools.
"(In 2007) he beat himself up a bit, would stress over little things, and (if you do) that tour will spit you out. But I guarantee you he's learned, and he's excited about the chance to do it again."
That starts with his Q-school plan. Hendrix chose the TPC Craig Ranch in Dallas for his second-stage site because he was told it has similarities to Houston's Deerwood Country Club, where he twice advanced through past second stages.
"I talked to friends on the Nationwide Tour, asked if it was a good course for me," he said. "They said you use a lot of drivers" - Hendrix's strength - "so I liked the sound of that."
To continue advancing, though, Hendrix said his short game will have to be working. That, and attitude, which after five previous Q-school experiences, he thinks he has down.
"I'd always seen it as, 'oh gosh, I dread it,'" he said. "Now I see it as a challenge; going through it makes you stronger.
"Q-school is a survival of the mentally strongest. Those who don't let fear creep in, don't panic when two bad holes happen, make a plan and stick to it - those are the ones who get through."
An expectant father with wife Melanie, Hendrix said he has a plan for golf and one for everything else. He said it is a lot like his game, which has almost never been touched by instructors.
"I just always felt you keep the ball in front of you, keep the swing short and simple," he said. "Focus on your scores at the course you're playing that day."
That "simple plan," he said, has not come easily. "It takes a long time to put everything in your life where you want it," Hendrix said. "But it's coming together for me now.
"It just comes down to simple golf, and everything else falls into place."