The final round of the second stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament is probably the most stressful 18 holes in golf. Those who survive and advance to the final stage have the opportunity to play themselves onto the PGA Tour, comforted by the knowledge that if they fail, they are still guaranteed a spot on the Nationwide tour. But to flunk out at the second stage of Q school leaves a player in golf's no-man's land, without a card on either tour. ¬∂ On Nov. 20 in St. Augustine, Fla., 72 players endured the exquisite torture of the fourth and final round of the second stage. The low 19 and ties would move on. The round was played under an ominous sky in the eerie silence of a tournament with no fans or leader boards. One by one the players straggled off the course and gathered at a scoring area next to the clubhouse, where their fates would be written in permanent ink. They displayed the palpable camaraderie of brothers in arms, and beers and tears flowed freely.
A couple of hundred yards away one player stood on an otherwise empty driving range. It is unheard of to hit balls after the final round of the second stage. When David Gossett requested a bucket, the surprised staff at St. Johns Golf & Country Club had to scramble to produce a batch of bright-yellow striped balls that were as hard as rocks. No flags had been planted on the range, because the grounds crew hadn't expected anyone to visit, yet Gossett was undeterred. He methodically worked his way through his pile of stripers, calling out imaginary targets. His coach and caddie for the week, Rob Akins, occasionally placed a hand on Gossett's shoulder or tweaked his knee with the butt of a club. They were clearly working on something specific, but as Gossett lashed ball after ball, this practice session had the feel of self-flagellation. Gossett had just shot an 80 for a four-round score of 293 (five over par). He had needed a 279 to move on to the final stage of Q school.
The 80 put an exclamation point on the shocking disintegration of Gossett's game. Everybody's All-America at Texas, a U.S. Amateur champ and a PGA Tour winner in only the fifth start of his rookie year, Gossett has always been considered a can't-miss pro. Instead, he has arrived at a crossroads at the tender age of 25. During the 2004 season Gossett missed the cut in 23 of his 25 starts, including 19 in a row to end the year. He broke 70 only once in 57 rounds, and his scoring average of 75.01 was the worst on Tour by nearly a shot and a half. With $21,250 in earnings he finished 245th on the money list, dooming him to the second stage.
So here he was in St. Augustine, hitting ball after ball in a light drizzle, oblivious to the raised voices from the scoring area that drifted toward the range. Watching him alone at the range, it was impossible not to wonder if this desperate practice session signaled the end of his career or the beginning of his rebirth.
Gossett has always had a clear vision of his future. Growing up in suburban Memphis, his home course was the TPC at Southwind, site of the FedEx St. Jude Classic. When the Tour came to town, he would put in long days as a spectator, but it was not idle hero worship. Gossett was making a careful study of his future peers. Even as a preteen the short, skinny kid with oversized glasses stalked success with an almost religious fervor. Charles Howell, a longtime rival and friend, dates Gossett's reputation as a range rat as far back as their first meeting, at a Future Masters event when they were 12. "I remember my dad saying, 'Watch how hard this kid works,'" Howell told SI in 2001. "It seemed as if at every tournament we were always the last guys out there practicing."
Gossett's parents, Pam and Larry, were just as dedicated. "They were there for him 100 percent, every round of every tournament," says Dick Horton, the president of the Tennessee Golf Association. "The Gossetts were a tight-knit family that gave David incredible support." Gossett's discipline, determination and intensity were imbued by Larry, who flew jets while in the Air Force and is now a pilot for FedEx. Larry is a typeA personality who has been deeply involved in the athletic careers of his two children. David's younger sister, Joni, earned a golf scholarship to Vanderbilt in 2001 and quickly carved out a reputation similar to her brother's. Says Vandy teammate Veronica Yatco, "Joni would always get the most out of every practice, every drill. She loved the challenge of trying to get better."
In his own pursuit of excellence David constantly sought the best counsel. In high school he split his academic years between the David Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and two schools in the Memphis area. While in Bradenton he worked with Jonathon Yarwood, a Leadbetter disciple who now coaches Michael Campbell and the Song sisters, Aree and Naree. In Memphis, Gossett was taught by Akins, the longtime instructor to David Toms, among others. Gossett would continue using both coaches throughout college and during his first two years on Tour.
It was hard to argue with Gossett's formula for success at Texas. As a freshman in the 1998--99 season, he was the Big 12 player of the year, freshman of the year and student-athlete of the year, as well as a first-team All-America. The summer before his sophomore year, he stormed to victory at the 1999 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach. In one of the most dominant performances in the tournament's history, Gossett defeated Sung Yoon Kim 9 and 8 in the final.
The victory earned him a spot in the 2000 Masters and the U.S. and British Opens, and after soaking up those experiences, he turned pro that summer. With his maturity and polished all-around game, Gossett was often compared with another Longhorn, Justin Leonard. In the fall of 2000 Gossett hoped to follow Leonard's example by using the maximum of seven sponsors' exemptions to earn enough money to crack the top 125 on the Tour money list and avoid Q school. But Gossett fell on his face, missing the cut in all seven tournaments, the first indication that he could not simply will himself to success in the big leagues as he had at other levels of golf. At 5'10" Gossett did not have the game to overpower the longer courses on Tour, and at the top, plenty of others worked as hard as he did. Nor did he fare any better in the final stage of the 2000 Q school. He did not have a round in the 60s--although he shot the first 59 in the event's history--and failed to secure a Tour card. But in 2001 he began piling up top 10 finishes on the Nationwide tour until a sponsor's exemption came through for the John Deere Classic in July, only his fifth PGA Tour start of the year. Gossett played the best golf of his career that week, shooting a flawless final-round 66 that included a must-make four-footer on the 72nd hole. With the one-shot victory came a two-year Tour exemption.
Gossett had a solid sophomore season in 2002, finishing 100th on the money list with $676,308. The highlight was a tie for second at Westchester during which Joni served as his caddie, something she had done occasionally during his career. The Gossetts charmed a national TV audience with their banter. "She definitely helps [on the course]," David told reporters. "She reminds me to have fun and not take myself so seriously."
Joni was enjoying success as a player as well. She had made an immediate impact on a strong Vanderbilt team. In her first collegiate tournament she came in 14th with rounds of 75, 73 and 76 and helped the Commodores to a second-place finish. The book on Joni was that she was a long hitter with loads of potential but was still a little raw, having quit the game for several years to concentrate on playing the harp. "She might not have been the most physically talented player we had, but she possessed a knack for shooting a really good score when we needed it the most," says Vanderbilt coach Martha Freitag. David and Joni reveled in each other's successes, and their bond was obvious during his visits to Vanderbilt. "He would walk every hole with her in practice, offering encouragement and advice," says Yatco. "He inspired her, and he helped her focus on playing her best."
David and Joni's charmed golfing lives began to unravel in 2003. David got off to a good start--fifth at the Hope, a tie for third at Hilton Head--but late in the summer he missed the cut in six of seven starts. The swoon coincided with Joni's abrupt decision to leave Vanderbilt. "She needed to get away from golf to sort some things out," says Horton, who has been friendly with the Gossetts since David was 10. Yatco says Joni left school to deal with "family issues." What were those issues? The Tennessean, a Nashville newspaper, reported in June 2004 that parents Pam and Larry had "split up."
Pam, Larry, Joni and David all declined to be interviewed for this story. A spokesman for David's management company, Gaylord Sports, refused to answer questions, e-mailing a statement that said, "The Gossetts have not split up."
How much an issue with his family may have contributed to his slump in 2004 is a taboo subject among David's intimates. Yarwood addresses the subject only obliquely. "David is very, very close to his family," he says. "If there is a crisis there, then obviously that is going to affect him deeply."
Even before Joni left school, David's golf support system was in upheaval. In early 2003 he distanced himself from Akins to work exclusively with Yarwood, moving from Memphis to Florida to aid the transition. "They're both excellent teachers, but it's hard for any player to serve two masters," says Richard Coop, the sports psychologist Gossett began working with as a freshman at Texas. "One is more technical and analytical"--Yarwood--"while the other is more feel-oriented." Akins was, and remains, understanding of Gossett's decision. "David's goal is not to simply keep his card," he said in St. Augustine. "His goal is not to finish 100th on the money list. From the first time I met him 14 years ago, his goal was to be the best. If that's how high your goals are, then sometimes you have to make changes to get better."
The exclusive relationship with Yarwood lasted less than a year. By January 2004 Gossett had cut ties with him and was working with Leadbetter. In the season's first three months Gossett made cuts at Phoenix and the Honda Classic, but his game was increasingly erratic. He stopped seeing Leadbetter in March, and the free fall began in earnest. Gossett shot 79--77 to miss the cut at the Players Championship and 83--75 to miss another cut at Hilton Head.
By May he was back working with Akins, who began concentrating on Gossett's earlier swing keys. That back-to-basics approach also led to a reunion with veteran caddie Andy Martinez, the longtime looper for Tom Lehman and, before that, Johnny Miller. Martinez had moonlighted on Gossett's bag during his triumph at the U.S. Amateur and worked eight tournaments for him this summer. Martinez could feel his man's confusion about his swing. "There were times when there would be trouble on one side of the fairway, and he would hit it so far in the other direction that it would be out of play," says Martinez. "He'd say, 'You know, I just have to trust it.' Then on the next hole he'd hit it right into the trouble. You could tell he didn't know where the ball was going sometimes."
Compounding Gossett's slump was his perfectionist nature. "In golf you can be too much of a self-blamer," says Coop. "You need to cut yourself a little slack. David can be so critical of himself that it prevents him from playing up to his capabilities."
Throughout the summer Gossett's struggles intensified, and, still searching, he reunited in August with Yarwood while continuing to work with Akins. Gossett took a month off to try to find his swing, but when he returned, at the Deutsche Bank Championship in September, he shot 84--84, his worst showing of the year. He finished the season with six more missed cuts.
Strangely, the worse Gossett played, the more his colleagues seemed to admire him. He has always been respected for his humility and impeccable manners, and his virtues stood out even more as his scores ballooned. "The way he's handled himself has been amazing," says Martinez. "If I were that age and going through what's he's going through, I'm sure I would have made an idiot out of myself. It's a testament to his character."
Even as Gossett has suffered through the most difficult period of his life, he has not lost empathy for others. In January it came to light that Gossett had donated $28,000 to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. Later this year he wrote what Texas coach John Fields calls a "substantial check" to the Longhorns' program. As reporters chronicled Gossett's struggles down the stretch this season, he often reminded them that kids his age were dying in Iraq while he was still playing a game for a living.
For further perspective--and a little inspiration--Gossett need look no further than his sister. Joni returned to Vanderbilt for the fall 2004 semester. According to Freitag she has been classified as a "medical disqualification." Joni remains on scholarship as she works toward a degree in human and organizational development, but she is no longer eligible to compete for the Commodores. Says Freitag, "I'm limited in what I can say, but Joni's doctors felt it was not in her best interest to be in competition."
Instead she has become what Freitag calls "a big sister" to a team composed entirely of freshmen and sophomores. Joni is a regular at team functions and practices while also excelling in the classroom. "She's doing great," says Yatco. "She seems very happy, very at peace."
For David there have also been signs of recovery. There were glimpses of the old Gossett in St. Augustine. He put himself among the first-round leaders with a 67, his best score in 13 months. On the opening nine of the next round he drove two balls O.B. and struggled to a 75, but he rebounded during the third round by going out in 31. He let it get away with a back-nine 40, setting the stage for his disappointing final round.
Where does Gossett go from here? In the short term he will split time between the PGA and Nationwide tours. Gossett's status as a past champion will get him into a handful of regular Tour events, and his many years as a compulsive writer of thank-you letters should help him land sponsors' exemptions. Tour officials estimate he could also get into as many as 20 Nationwide events.
As to the larger question of whether he can recapture his old glory, recent history is mixed. David Duval hit bottom in 2003, took eight months off, then returned last summer. After finishing 13th at the Deutsche Bank, Duval says he is ready to win again, and it is easy to believe him. In the mid'90s Ian Baker-Finch fell into a slump similar to Gossett's and never recovered. Gossett is younger than Duval and Baker-Finch were when their downturns began, but he does not have their major championship résumés, either. Martinez is confident that Gossett can recapture his form. "He'll be back," he says. "This kid has so much heart, so much desire, so much talent, and he's a phenomenal athlete. Eventually that athleticism will win out."
Yarwood, too, thinks Gossett will recover. He emphasizes the fortitude Gossett has shown in soldiering on despite his setbacks. "You have to take your hat off to the guy," says Yarwood. "He's taken all these punches, but he's still standing."
Says Horton, "The Gossetts were a tight-knit family that gave David incredible support."
"You could tell he didn't know where the ball was going sometimes," says Martinez.
Gossett won in the fifth start of his rookie year, 2001.
Photographs by Gary Bogdon
Gossett ended the second stage of Q school with an 80, and without a Tour card.
EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES
When Joni (left) abruptly dropped out of Vanderbilt, David's play began to suffer.
Photographs by Gary Bogdon
GURU DU JOUR
Akins (right) is one of three instructors who have tried to fix Gossett's swing.