Q-school a true litmus test for golfers seeking 2009 PGA Tour card

Eventually, just about every professional golfer must try to find the answer to the question that lingers somewhere deep inside: Do I belong on the PGA Tour?

It sits there begging for an answer, no matter whether a golfer is young and confident or aging and filled with self-doubt. It rears itself in the minds of grizzled minitour veterans, bright-eyed rookies, past PGA Tour winners and inexperienced upstarts.

If they aren't on the PGA Tour, they yearn to know whether they could be. Some of them will find out this week.

The PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament -- better known as Q-school -- will get under way Wednesday at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif. There, 163 players from varied backgrounds will vie for membership in golf's most elite club. Those who finish among the top 25 and ties will earn unconditional membership for the PGA Tour in 2009.

Among those who will tee up in the desert two hours east of Los Angeles are a major championship winner, several players who have multiple tour victories and Ryder Cup appearances looking for a comeback, formerly touted prospects still waiting to break through and upstart rookies hoping they don't have to wait.

But no matter their backgrounds, all players are on equal footing this week as they face one of golf's most grueling tests: Six pressure-packed rounds that will provide, at least for this year, an answer to that burning question.

"It's just a part of the job," said Joe Durant, a four-time tour winner who won as recently as the 2006 Funai Classic but is back at Q-school this week. "You know when you sign up for this line of work that you have to earn your way on the big tour, and if you don't, you won't be out there for long."

And golf doesn't discriminate. Its egalitarian essence has paved a path to Q-school this year for such players as Mark Brooks, the 1996 PGA Championship winner, Chris Riley, who was on the 2004 Ryder Cup team, John Huston, Durant, Notah Begay, Olin Browne and Robert Gamez. They've combined for 21 PGA Tour victories.

"For some of us, it's very humbling," said Begay, a four-time PGA Tour winner who is trying to return from a serious back injury that derailed his career. "But you have to put your ego and your résumé aside because this game doesn't care who you are. You have to engage the game on its terms, not yours."

Past tour winners, however, enjoy a bit of a fallback because anyone who has won a tournament retains status as a past champion. Those players usually get into about 15 or 20 tournaments a year. Others, such as Durant, finished between 125th and 150th on the 2008 money list and also retain some status.

But gaining a full exemption for the tour is a sizable carrot for the pro golfer who wants to pick and choose a schedule and play more tournaments against the best in the business.

"I'm not dreading it at all," Durant said. "Do I want to be there? No. But I know I deserve to go because I didn't play well enough to keep my card, and I want to do whatever I can to play against the best."

Past tour winners are not the only ones trying to earn their keep. Each year, a handful of highly touted young players compete at Q-school. Some, such as former U.S. amateur champion Ricky Barnes and former four-time NCAA All-American Bryce Molder are trying to improve status already earned based on a top-25 spot on the Nationwide Tour money list.

Then there are the true rookies such as Seung-Su Han, a 22-year-old who has made it through the first two stages of Q-school and is trying to reach the PGA Tour for the first time.

Han was the American Junior Golf Association player of the year in 2002, when he won five AJGA tournaments to surpass the record of four in a single year previously held by Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. But those accolades mean little when trying to earn a spot on the PGA Tour.

"It's weird because you dream about making it to the PGA Tour and you have this great opportunity to do it, but then you are playing against so many guys that remind you about how hard it is," Han said. "I mean, if guys like John Huston and Bob May have to go back to Q-school, you know it can't be easy."

That could be why younger players tend to get a little more nervous at Q-school.

"I was a wreck my first time," Durant said. "The young kids playing for the first time have all of the pressure because it's basically do-or-die for them. Guys like me are just out there freewheeling, trying to improve our position."

Of course, the experienced players also feel the nerves. Begay, for example, is trying to regain the form that once had him ranked among the top 20 players in the world. He currently has no world ranking because he hasn't played enough on major tours.

He has played on minitours around the world while battling his back problems, and he said his confidence has waned, creating nerves.

"I get nervous over everything now," Begay said. "It's a side of the game I didn't know existed six or seven years ago. When you're playing well, you think you can make anything, but a stretch of poor play really takes its toll on your confidence, and those things tend to get magnified at Q-school."

The final stage at Q-school isn't as much of a pressure cooker as it once was because of the proliferation of the Nationwide Tour. Any player who makes it to the final stage of Q-school is guaranteed at least conditional status on the Nationwide Tour, and that eases the pressure a bit.

"At least I know I have a job no matter what," said Han, who turned pro as soon as he made it past the second stage and into the finals. "That's somewhat of a relief. I mean, I'm only 22, so I think it would be a good experience to go on the Nationwide Tour if I don't make it through."

That doesn't mean players won't grind a little more over 3-foot putts, take a little extra time to judge the wind and grip the club just a little too tightly a few times during the six rounds.

"You can say it makes it easier because the Nationwide Tour is out there, but we all know the ultimate goal is to be on the PGA Tour," Durant said. "That is why we put ourselves through this. You want to compete against the best in the world. That's the nature of a pro golfer."

Peter Yoon is a contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage.