Genesis Invitational

Riviera Country Club


Think you're good enough for Q-school? Read this before you answer.

September 16, 2016

You probably haven't heard of Jeff Kellen. And if you have, it was probably for what he did at a mini-tour event in 2014, when he made nine birdies in a row to shoot a back-nine 27. Or maybe you saw him (without knowing who he was) when he served as a swing model in a series of Golf Digest instruction stories.

Kellen was a top player at Illinois State, and turned pro in 2011. Since then, he's dedicated virtually every waking moment to trying to make it to the PGA Tour. He pounds the ball, hitting 185-yard 8-irons and long, straight drives. He's a terrific putter, and isn't afraid to go low. He's shot 62 a dozen times, and if he came to your average American private club, he'd probably make 10 or 12 birdies on his first trip around.

But for the group of players trying to make it through the three stages of Q-school required to get onto the tour, Kellen doesn't stand out. Everybody in the field is a terrific player. Kellen has tried to qualify three times and has made it to the second stage once, last year. He's putting up the $5,000 entry fee and going for it again this year, starting in Nebraska City, Neb., in two weeks.

About 950 players will compete at 12 locations starting Sept. 27 for about 400 spots in five second stage venues a month later. The best 156 from there will make it to the finals a month after that, and where they finish in that tournament will determine how many events they can enter in 2017.

You have to play a lot of good golf on three separate weeks, against a lot of good players, just to get even conditional status on the tour--from where it's another giant leap to get to the PGA Tour. It's one of the hardest challenges in sports.

But say you're a good stick at your home club. Maybe you've won a club championship or two. You might be wondering how your game stacks up against somebody like Kellen.

Unless you're shooting 65s and your game can travel, it doesn't.

Even if you hit a lot of balls, you probably have a day job. For five years, Kellen has been doing nothing but practice and play golf. Last year, he moved to Long Island to train with instructor Mike Jacobs at Jacobs' high-tech studio in Manorville. Kellen has broken down every aspect of his swing and optimized it for maximum efficiency. He's hit thousands of balls and rolled thousands of putts, and that's just this summer.

Eavesdropping on one of their work sessions in this final lead-up to Q-school is much different than watching a run-of-the-mill fix-my-slice lesson at the range down the street. Jacobs and Kellen are concerned with very small differences in the movement of Kellen's hips in the downswing--the difference between perfectly puring shots and hitting them slightly off the toe in a way that is almost invisible to the casual watcher. Jacobs doesn't say much at this point. He's there to help Kellen connect accurate feedback to the shots he's hitting, so that Kellen can essentially coach himself during a tournament by recognizing negative swing patterns very quickly. That's an important skill when you're on your own at a tournament and a run of three or four bad holes can mean you're going home and trying again next year.

The work is part of a comprehensive plan for Kellen's season that centered more on practicing and improving his skills than competing in mini-tour events. "I tried it the other way for a few years, playing a lot of tournaments and even changing my swing," says Kellen. "All it did was substitute different inconsistencies for the ones I had. I came to Mike so I could learn what was really happening with my swing, and to own it."

As Q-school approaches, Kellen has switched from hard-core swing instruction to working on shaping different full and short game shots, and sharpening his competitive instincts. "Playing hard golf courses helps," says Kellen. "Money games, tournaments--competition takes many forms. It could be for $1, or for a beer. But it has to be something. There's nothing worse than handing something over."

He doesn't go into his pocket very often.

You better go hit some balls. A lot of them.