Lee had the closest shave. He shot four birdies on the final day, and 27 overall during the six rounds. But three double-bogies, including one on the par five fifth hole this morning killed his chances.
At least by finishing inside the top 50, Lee and Wilkinson will have full status on the Web.Com Tour in 2013, and they will be able to plan their schedules around that. The PGA Tour's qualification system is changing next year, with a far greater emphasis on qualifying via the second-tier tour. Consistent play throughout the season will give both golfers a good chance of making the step up to the riches of the Big Tour.
And we've just had a look at the leaderboard. Among those who have like Lee and Wilkinson missed out are Camilo Villegas ( a three-time winner on tour), Heath Slocum ( a four-time winner with career earnings of over US$15m), and well-performed Australians such as Rod Pampling and Nick O'Hern. It really is one tough school!
There's always a hard-luck story to beat all the other hard-luck stories. This year it belongs to US golfer Nicholas Thompson. He began the day inside the number at 17-under, and in a tie for 15th place starting the day. But an early bogey was followed by a quadruple bogey nine of the par-five fifth hole sees Thompson outside looking in with just two holes to play. Ouch!
Golf's toughest challenge is on right at the moment in La Quinta, California. Its full title is the PGA Tour Qualifying School, but it is known universally as Q-School. It's six rounds of high pressure golf where 15% of the field will leave elated, and where the other 85% will go home to contemplate life in golf's secondary tours.
Two New Zealanders won't get much sleep on Sunday night (US time). Danny Lee and Tim Wilkinson were way back in the field after the first two rounds, Wilkinson in 130th after opening rounds of 71 and 73 and Lee at 152nd after rounds of 72 and 75. The top 25 was a long way ahead.
Both players improved over the next two rounds. Lee shot 67-65 to end day four in a tie for 46th, and Wilkinson shot 69-68 for a share of 69th.
Both Lee and Wilkinson had to go low today to give themselves a chance of making it back to the Big Tour. And go low they did; Danny Lee shot another 67, and Tim Wilkinson made five birdies and an eagle on his way to a brilliant seven-under 65, the second-lowest round of the day. Wilkinson has leapt 39 places to join Lee in a tie for 30th, but more importantly, both players are just one off "the number", the score for the top 25 players and ties.
Tomorrow will be a pressure-filled day for both men. If they can continue their charge forward and finish inside the top 25 they'll be back on the PGA Tour next year, playing for big money against the best golfers in the world. But if they miss out, it's back to the second-tier WEB.COM Tour where the purses are around 10% those of the Big Tour.
Q-School is a brutal test of a golfer's game, including his mental game. The pressure will be on Danny Lee and Tim Wilkinson tomorrow, and on those who are three or four shots either side of the number. The players know what's at stake, and when play concludes tomorrow there will be tales of joy and tales of woe. Inevitably, there will be a player who misses his PGA Tour card by a single roll of a ball, or a putt that goes in and then comes out again.
If you ever get the chance, read Tales from Q-School by John Feinstein, one of our favourite golf writers. Shortly after the book was published he did an online Q&A with the Washington Post, from whence this quote comes:
Chicago: Hi John,
A question from a HUGE fan. In "A Civil War: Army Vs. Navy a Year Inside College Football's Purest Rivalry", I believe you said that your favorite quote was (roughly) "the hardest thing for most college football players is practice; at Army & Navy, that's the easiest part of their day".
Is there a quote or story from "Q School" that encapsulates the challenges and struggles of Qualifying School?
John Feinstein: That's a good question -- I guess there are a couple. Ron Whittaker describing how he sleeps at night: "Pepto Bismal and Ambien and I sleep like a baby." Donnie Hammond saying that Q School is like "a big 4-5 day funeral, and at the end they just cart the bodies away." And Steve Flesch saying that Q School is like "six straight days of root canal."
Hammond also said -- "When you're at Q-School, there's not a single minute when you're awake that you feel comfortable. And you don't sleep very much."
I think Q School is the most mentally grueling event I've ever covered, because what's at stake, and because, unlike most sports events, there's no crowd, there's no noise. You can almost physically feel the pressure.
We wish Danny Lee and Tim Wilkinson all the very best for tomorrow's final examination at Q-School. They have done brilliantly to recover from inauspicious starts, but it will all count for nothing if they fall short tomorrow. Here's hoping that in 2013 there will be two New Zealanders flying the flag on golf's toughest tour.