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Go-for-broke meets survival mode at Q-School's Final Stage

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Brandon Harkins and Michael Johnson during the second round of PGA TOUR Q-School presented by Korn Ferry on the Dye’s Valley Golf Course at TPC Sawgrass (Photo by Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)

Brandon Harkins and Michael Johnson during the second round of PGA TOUR Q-School presented by Korn Ferry on the Dye’s Valley Golf Course at TPC Sawgrass (Photo by Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)

    Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin

    PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Brandon Harkins wasn’t sure he wanted to play PGA TOUR Q-School presented by Korn Ferry. He holds full 2024 Korn Ferry Tour status at worst, and the odds of earning a TOUR card at Final Stage are long – 165 players for five cards (and ties).

    Harkins needed a push. Enter, among others, Joel Dahmen.

    “He said, ‘Get your butt back out there,’” Harkins said. “He definitely pushed me to do it … He’s a good friend of mine, and I know he wants me to get back out there, that’s for sure.”

    So Harkins played Q-School’s Second Stage two weeks ago, where he advanced on the number after William Mouw and Alex Chiarella each made bogey on the 72nd hole to move the cut line. Harkins needed a high-wire act to get here, but he’s here. Now he takes center stage this weekend in northeast Florida, with a legitimate chance to earn a PGA TOUR card across TPC Sawgrass’ Dye’s Valley Course and Sawgrass Country Club.

    After one round at each course, Harkins, 37, stands tied for sixth at 5-under 135. Three players sit at 7 under (Harrison Endycott, Kyle Westmoreland and Blaine Hale, Jr.) with two at 6 under (Harry Higgs and Trace Crowe). The top five and ties after 72 holes will earn 2024 PGA TOUR membership. The field is re-paired for Round 3; the top half of the field will play Sawgrass Country Club on Saturday, then Dye’s Valley Course on Sunday. The bottom half of the field will play vice-versa.

    Right here, right now, Harkins’ decision to play Q-School looks pretty good. He has his support group – including Dahmen – to thank.

    “I was just worn out,” Harkins said of his mentality after the Korn Ferry Tour season, where he clawed down the stretch to retain full status. “It wasn't my best year this past year … I like being home with my family, my friends. Needless to say, I like a little bit of an off-season.

    “I think just a couple days to relax and reflect, and then I was, all right, ready to go.”

    Harkins is ready for the weekend, with winds expected to reach 40 mph near the Atlantic coast outside Jacksonville, Florida. It could be wet and wild, both tangibly and conceptually.

    PGA TOUR Q-School presented by Korn Ferry Tour’s Final Stage represents different things to different players. The first group includes Harkins, players who have secured no worse than full 2024 Korn Ferry Tour status. This includes Nos. 31-75 on the Korn Ferry Tour standings, Nos. 126-150 on the PGA TOUR’s FedExCup standings and select other categories (like PGA TOUR Canada’s No. 1 Hayden Springer, who shares sixth place with Harkins and Japanese star Keita Nakajima.) These players can think top-five or bust. There’s no difference between sixth and 165th.

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    “A sixth-place finish does nothing for me this week, where a sixth-place finish for a lot of guys is huge,” said Endycott, who finished No. 139 on the FedExCup Fall standings as a TOUR rookie. “It's trying to balance that.”

    For many players indeed, the next 40 and ties (after the top five and ties) is a key benchmark. These players will secure guaranteed starts on the Korn Ferry Tour, with the next 20 and ties earning guaranteed PGA TOUR Americas starts. The remainder of finishers will hold conditional Korn Ferry Tour and PGA TOUR Americas status – their 2024 schedule far from certain.

    Harkins played alongside fellow veteran Michael Johnson on Friday, who enters the weekend on the bubble for guaranteed Korn Ferry Tour starts. After Johnson’s chip shot at the par-4 18th slid by the hole, he raised his wedge over his knees, gripping it hard with both hands. The angst was palpable, but he restrained from any further action. The picture, though, was worth a thousand words – Q-School in a nutshell. Johnson missed his 8-footer for par, and he enters the weekend T46 at even-par 140, one shot away from guaranteed starts.

    Earlier this year, Johnson fell agonizingly short of securing full Korn Ferry Tour status; he missed the cut at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship and fell from No. 73 to No. 77 on the standings (the top 75 after the Nationwide kept full status). He enters the weekend at Q-School’s Final Stage on a similar bubble.

    “There’s no stress like Q-School,” Johnson said at Second Stage two weeks ago. “It’s just an animal. It’s just not fun, honestly. It kind of takes the fun out of the game a little bit.”

    Johnson uttered those words after advancing. That’s how much Q-School can siphon one’s energy.

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    Through 36 holes, the projected top five includes two players looking to better their conditional TOUR status (Endycott and Higgs), one looking to regain TOUR status (Westmoreland) and two seeking their first TOUR card (Hale and Crowe). Players across the full spectrum of pro golf will duke it out this weekend, the first time since 2012 that Q-School will award PGA TOUR cards.

    That’s why Harkins is here, after all. He has been a TOUR member (in 2018 and 2019). As a husband and father of two, his status in professional golf doesn’t define who he is as a person. Far from it. But he has steadily honed his skills from an under-the-radar college player through the TOUR’s Pathways circuits to the game’s highest level. He has seen what it takes and knows he has it.

    This weekend, he can prove it.

    “Deep down, I always figured I could do it,” Harkins said after signing for a bogey-free 66 on Friday at Dye’s Valley Course. “When I made the PGA TOUR (via the 2017 Korn Ferry Tour), it was for sure the highlight of my career. Kind of made me realize that I actually can do it. Now it's where I expect to be. It's kind of funny how you -- your attitude or your expectations kind of grow a little bit.

    “It's certainly where I think I should be.”

    Kevin Prise is an associate editor for the PGA TOUR. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.

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