A Magnificent Seven: Players of the 1971 Q-School

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This is the first in a series on players from the 1971 Q-School. Nearly a half century later John Coyne tracked down Allen Miller, Lanny Wadkins, Leonard Thompson, Sam Adams, John Mahaffey, Steve Melnyk and Spike Kelley. How had pro golf and life turned out for these seven men?

By John Coyne

Copyright © John Coyne. Used with permission.

THE PGA TOUR QUALIFYING TOURNAMENT — better known as Q-School — was established in 1965. John Schlee was the first winner. It was last played in 2012 and Lee Dong-hwan was the low qualifier. In between, the tournament was played annually, with two tournaments (Spring and Fall), played in 1968-69 and 1975-81.

The class of 1967 had what was then considered, by many, the greatest group of pros: Tony Jacklin, Bob Murphy, Orville Moody, Deane Beman, Gibby Gilbert, Lee Elder, Bobby Cole and Peter Townsend.

But then came the class of 1971!

A record number of 357 players — a 43 percent increase over 1970 — played in regional tryouts. Among the qualifiers were Lanny Wadkins, the 1970 U.S. Amateur champion and a member of the 1969 and 1971 U.S. Walker Cup teams; Steve Melnyk, the current British Amateur titleholder; David Graham of Australia, already an international star, who had just won the 1971 World Cup; John Mahaffey of Texas, the 1970 NCAA champion; and Allen Miller and Bruce Fleisher, both Walker Cup players, as well as Tom Watson.

The 1971 class was intelligent and well-educated. Of the 75 players enrolled, 66 had attended college and played on college golf teams. Thirty-five had already graduated from college. It was a young class. The average age was 24.

A Test of Skill and Endurance

The PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament was actually a series of tournaments, beginning with first-stage qualifiers played at either Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Quincy, Illinois; or Riverside, California. The entry fee was $300 and if players made the grade at the first stage, they advanced to the second stage.

Golfers who advanced out of the second stage moved on to the final stage — the six-round grind — that is what most people referred to when mentioning Q-School.

This 1971 tournament was longer than previous ones — six rounds instead of four. The two extra rounds were added to make it a greater test of golfing ability. A lucky round wouldn’t help. The test was for endurance and a mature golf game that would hold up during the whole week.

The Q-School was divided into two sections.

1. Classroom instruction by tournament players and the Tournament Players Division staff on players’ ethics and conduct, relations with the public, tournament sponsors and the news media, plus a written examination on the PGA Constitution. 

2. Qualifying Tournament, 108 holes of stroke play. The number of golfers allowed to earn their cards was determined by Joseph Dey, then commissioner of the Tournament Players Division. That number was based on the total number of golfers in school and Dey’s estimation of how many new golfers the tour could support. In 1971 Dey decided that the top 23 scores, plus ties, would quality.

The tournament began on Monday in the rain, the first day of rain in months for Florida. It was a rain the pros were not disappointed to see, as it would help to slow the hard, fast greens of the championship East Course at PGA National now known as BallenIsles Country Club.

Each of the players who PGA officials I spoke to thought would make the cut did indeed qualify. Twenty-three players shot 444 or better and earned their cards.

But through the long week of golf there was drama and tragedy as many of the “also rans,” local pros, such as Spike Kelley from Shawnee, Oklahoma, tried and failed to make the tour. Dreams of glory faded with the sun. It was all over for a majority of young guys until the next school, the following year, and another 108 holes of golf. 

Now, nearly fifty years after that event, I got to thinking of those players at PGA National and wondering what they remembered from the Q-School, and also how things had played out on tour and in life.

So, with the help of the Internet, I reached out to five of the guys I had written about in my first published golf book, Better Golf, a book of instruction by eleven contestants from the 1971 PGA Tournament Players School.


John Coyne is a bestselling author whose most recent golf novel is The Caddie Who Won the Masters. Learn more at John Coyne Books.

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Neil Sagebiel

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