Updated at: 12/05/2012 11:35 AM
By DOUG FERGUSON
(AP) LA QUINTA, Calif. - D.H. Lee of South Korea wiped away a single tear when he realized he had earned a job on the PGA Tour. Moments later, Edward Loar stood tall as he spoke about two shots into the water on the last two holes at Q-school that sent him back to the minor leagues.
Amid this familiar contrast of emotions, a sense of nostalgia swept across the California desert late Monday afternoon.
"To get this one is extra special, knowing that next year guys won’t have this opportunity," said Scott Langley, one of 25 players who earned cards in the final edition of this six-round tournament that offers a ticket to the richest tour in golf.
The PGA Tour next year will end a half-century of tradition when Q-school will only provide cards to the secondary Web.com Tour.
The PGA Tour is changing its structure to make it more competitive than ever. The players who failed to reach the FedEx Cup playoffs will meet in a series of four tournaments called "The Finals," and the 25 players who earn the most money from those events will get their cards
That was on the mind of so many players who sweated out six days over two golf courses at PGA West.
Lee birdied his last three holes for a 5-under 67 on the Stadium Course to win Q-school, which gives him the highest priority of the 25 players who earned cards, along with a $50,000 first-place check. Ross Fisher of England, who won two matches at the Ryder Cup two years ago in Wales, was among those who finished one shot behind.
Fisher has played plenty in America, mostly the majors and World Golf Championships because of his world ranking. But when he heard about the PGA Tour’s change, he skipped the season-ending European Tour event in Dubai to get ready for Q-school.
"This game can go high and it can go low," Fisher said. "Last year for me was not great. This year has been a work in progress. But it was the last year of Q-school, and it was nice to create a bit of history to be one of the guys at the last one."
Camilo Villegas, who won back-to-back FedEx Cup playoff events in 2008, had to return to Q-school and missed his card by two shots. Villegas said he would hope for sponsor exemptions to try to get back his full status.
Heath Slocum, only three years removed from a FedEx Cup playoff win in which he beat Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Steve Stricker and Padraig Harrington with a birdie on the last hole, also failed to get through. Slocum needed a birdie on his last hole, but a bad swing came at the wrong time. He pulled his tee shot into the water and made bogey. A day earlier, Slocum’s ball moved a fraction of an inch before a putt and he called a one-shot penalty on himself.
"They say crazy stuff happens in Q-school, and it does," Slocum said. "That’s never happened before. That’s one shot. You never know when one shot can help."
Among those earning their cards was Erik Compton, who only four years ago nearly died of a heart attack while driving himself to the hospital. He made it in time to survive and get a second heart transplant.
"This is hell week," said Compton, who said he slept only two hours each of the last two nights. "There was a sense of urgency for me. I don’t know if my health is going to hold up. If I could only go to the Web.com Tour, I probably would beat myself up."
Robert Karlsson, another former Ryder Cup player whose game was in such disrepair that he withdrew from the British Open this year because he didn’t know where the ball was going, made it with three strokes to spare.
The list also includes Donald Constable of Minnesota, who had to go through a pre-qualifier and then three more stages of Q-school to reach the PGA Tour. Constable sweated it out to the very end. Needing a par on the 18th hole of the Stadium Course, he hit his tee shot into an area of thin sand in a bunker, found the far end of the green and lagged a 45-foot to within 5 feet of the cup. Facing the most meaningful putt of his life, he poured it right in the middle.
How would he have felt next year if that putt only meant a spot on the Web.com Tour?
"It’s hard to say," Constable said. "Obviously, this is something you’re working toward your whole life. It makes it tougher, knowing it’s right there and you’re so close and one shot can make a difference. It would probably be easier if you were only playing for the Web.com Tour."
Constable is a throwback in other ways. He finished his college eligibility at Minnesota a year ago, but stayed an amateur an additional year so he could complete his degree. He graduated in the spring with a degree in sociology.
The status was more confusing for Si Woo Kim, the 17-year-old South Korean with a flawless swing who already is known by PGA Tour players who have competed against him, a list that includes Rickie Fowler. "This guy can play," said Fowler, who faced him in the Korea Open last year.
Yes, but he might not be playing that much.
Kim, even though he earned his card, cannot become a PGA Tour member until he turns 18 on June 28. The only way he can get into PGA Tour events until he turns 18 is through sponsor exemptions (no more than seven) or through Monday qualifying. Whatever FedEx Cup points he earns until his birthday will not show up on the list until he officially becomes a PGA Tour member.
But he’s in, and as most players believe, talent comes through under any circumstances.
Loar can only hope that’s the case.
It took the former Oklahoma State star 13 years just to reach the PGA Tour, and he was in good shape to return going into the final day of Q-school, just three shots out of the lead. But he showed some nerves early, began dropping shots and found himself only one shot inside the cutoff when he stood on the tee at the par-3 17th, an island green. His 9-iron came up short and went into the water, leading to double bogey. Needing a birdie on the last hole to get his card, his approach drifted left and into the water.
He missed by two.
"It’s obviously a hard day for everyone. What else can I say?" Loar said. "I tried hard. We all know how cruel the game is. I can learn from it. I persevered for 13 years, so hopefully, this won’t set me back too much."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)