Haas, Begay, Weekley begin their quests

WINTER GARDEN, Fla. -- During each day at PGA Tour Qualifying School, GolfDigest.com's Brian Wacker will chronicle the efforts of Bill Haas, Notah Begay III and Boo Weekley as they compete in golf's most grueling week.

The Prodigy

He was the can't-miss-kid who did. Bill Haas is the son of a nine-time PGA Tour winner, nephew of the coach at college golf powerhouse Wake Forest and, by all accounts -- including that of Tiger Woods -- a golf prodigy. Haas' path to the PGA Tour seemed so pre-determined that he once said the Nationwide Tour wasn't the place for him.

That was a year ago. On Wednesday, Haas, who says his comments about the Nationwide Tour were taken out of context, let his game do the talking with a 4-under 68 that left him just two strokes off the lead in windy, difficult conditions in the first round of the PGA Tour's Qualifying tournament at Orange County National.

"The experience of the Nationwide Tour helped me a lot this year," said Haas, who finished 23rd on that tour's money list this year, missing an automatic exemption to the big leagues by two spots. "The more rounds you play, the more you can learn, and it did more positive things for me than negative.

"Would I have liked to be on the PGA Tour? Yeah, of course. But all of those guys on the Nationwide Tour belong on the PGA Tour. They just haven't gotten it down yet."

When you're as good as Haas can be -- he got up and down five straight times for par or better to close out his first round -- the difficult week these six rounds can be suddenly seems easier.

"Last year, the six rounds were tough," said Haas, pleased to have bettered his opening Q School round of a year ago by seven shots. "But as long as it was, it can go by pretty quick, too. And the pressure is already off me because I'm guaranteed a spot on the Nationwide Tour [for next year]. Last year, I wasn't guaranteed anything."

Another guarantee is that Haas, who took a couple of weeks off before getting in some practice rounds early in the week, knows how to handle himself out here. You just get that sense about him.

Instead of hanging around the golf course to beat balls for hours after his round like a lot of the younger guys here do, Haas hit the range for only about 20 minutes before hopping in his black SUV and heading off to lunch. There won't be any late-night carousing in the trendy Thornton Park section of Orlando for this 23-year-old.

"I'll probably go to dinner with my mom, who's down here watching me play this week, then call my girlfriend," said Haas, a day after watching his alma mater Wake Forest hang on to beat Wisconsin on ESPN. "College is easy, it's fun. But it's a little different when you're out here playing for a living.

"When I'm off the course, I like to get away from it all. When I get here [Thursday] it'll be a new day."

The Veteran

When you're a four-time winner on the PGA Tour and have made more than $5 million in a half-dozen years of professional golf, something as laborious as the PGA Tour's Qualifying tournament can be a downright annoyance.

Except when your name is Notah Begay III.

Having been reduced to limited action much of the past five years because of chronic injuries, Begay could be bitter, or even have quit the game -- something he said four months ago that he would consider if he couldn't physically get back to playing the kind of golf he knew he had to play. Instead, he was excited.

It was the first step back for Begay, who shot a 1-under 71 Wednesday in the opening round after playing in only 11 events all year, missing the cut in seven of them.

"There's so much golf left, but it's a great start anytime you can start under par in tough conditions," Begay said.

You get the feeling, however, that the real first step back didn't take place at Orange County National. It took place at the end of the summer when he started working with Gio Valiante, a professor at Rollins College and a noted sport psychologist who's worked with some of the game's best players on the mental approach to the game.

"He's been a tremendous asset to my game, reaffirming that I've done some great things at every level of the game," said Begay, who is the subject of a special on Q School for NBC Sports. "I try to focus on that and basically not giving up on the course because the game has a way of bringing you to your knees, and he's gotten me to see the positive."

You start to wonder whether you're talking to Begay or Tony Robbins. But what Valiante has done is give Begay back the one thing every golfer out here needs: confidence.

In Begay's case, confidence is born out of the ability to physically hit a golf ball pain free.

"I've been looking forward to this week only because it's a good test for my game, which has been on an ascent the last couple of months," Begay said. "It's intense out here. I'm finally in a great place physically, and with the help of Gio I'm in a great place mentally, which wasn't the case because I wasn't physically able to practice."

That practice will continue Thursday morning. "I'm going to work on a couple things, then I'll be back here early," Begay said.

The Journeyman

If idle time is the devil's plaything, then it must be the golfer's too, at least for someone like Boo Weekley, who is trying to ride his sneakers and rain pants back to the PGA Tour after a season in the bigs in 2001.

There's no NetJet membership or big-money endorsement deal for a journeyman like Weekley. Truth is, he arrived at Q School like a lot of guys did, with just the shirt on his back -- along with those hanging in the back of his SUV -- and a hotel room at the local Best Western.

"It's got a big ol' lake behind it and I know there's some fish in there," Weekley says in his friendly southern drawl. "I usually bring the fishing poles with me, but I come here to play some golf."

And that's exactly what this truly good ol' Florida boy did, shooting a 3-under 69 in the opening round. For someone like Weekley, momentum can mean everything -- one way or the other -- so it says something about him that he was able to overcome three poor drives out of the gate and a bogey before going eagle-birdie on the fourth and fifth holes at Crooked Cat.

"It was kind of off to the races from there," he said.

Coming in, the goal for Weekley was to shoot 2-under every day. Being ahead of the curve isn't any reason to relax though. "I went to bed around midnight [Tuesday] and had a little bit of jitters, and I'm sure I will [Thursday]," he said.

"I'll probably just hang around the hotel tonight and I don't know, maybe just drive around Orlando a little bit. They got us out here early so now I got so much time I don't know what to do."

One of the things Weekley hopes to continue to do Thursday is play the par-3s the way he did in the first round -- in even par. "They've been my nemesis," he says. "I think I led the tour in double bogeys on the par-3s in the one year I played out there." Last year at Q School he played them in nine over par.

Needless to say, he wasn't as comfortable with his driver on Wednesday. After the round, Weekley hit the range not only to practice, but to switch out his driver from a TaylorMade r5 to a Callaway Fusion.

"I'm in a funk with my driver and 3-wood right now," he said. "I was out [on the range] changing drivers left and right trying to get it to go straight. I think I found one for [Thursday] though. Basically, I'll just grab a club and if it looks good and feels good I'll just go with it. If I hit bad again in the next round, I'll try another one."

Brian Wacker is an assistant editor for GolfDigest.com