Michigan trio survives Q School — thanks to some toughness and real-life perspective

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

They don't take occasional 98-mph fastballs to the back, they don't get driven into the earth by 280-pound defensive lineman, and they don't get checked into the boards or lose their teeth like we lose our car keys.

But golfers are some of the toughest people in professional sports.

Maybe not physically — but mentally, to be sure. There are so many ups and downs, often the highs and lows coming in the same minute, that there rarely are any obstacles that can't be overcome by a seasoned golfer. You can win a tournament one week and miss the cut the next, shoot 61 one day and card an 81 the next, make eagle one hole and then triple-bogey the next. Golfers, who compete in a sport that can't be perfected, have seen it all, and they know how to weather the storms.

From left, Tom Gillis, Liz Nagel and Brett White earned their tour cards for 2022.

That trait not only comes in handy on the golf course, but away from it, too — when life gets too real.

"We all have our own battles," said Liz Nagel, an LPGA Tour pro from DeWitt.

"It's kind of a never-give-up type of thing, just like golf."

Nagel, a survivor of thyroid cancer, is one of several Michigan natives who will have status on a major golf tour next year. For three in particular — Nagel, Caledonia's Brett White and Lake Orion's Tom Gillis — those playing privileges for 2022 didn't come easy. Aside from putting the tee in the ground, rarely anything about golf, or trying to make a living at it, comes easy.

Here are their stories of setbacks, comebacks and perseverance. 

'I was giving myself till 30'

White, 28, an Eastern Michigan alum, turned pro in 2016.

In 2017, while traveling the country playing the mini-tours, he suffered a rare brain infection, viral encephalitis, that causes rapid and significant swelling. It can lead to brain damage.

It left White unable to walk on his own, let alone swing a golf club. He had no equilibrium. He had speech issues. He suffered some memory loss. Frankly, he wasn't immediately worried about his losing golfing abilities, because he was a bit more preoccupied with losing his life.

Eventually, rehab helped him golf again, while golf helped him rehab.

"It was great to work on things — swinging and balancing, getting out on the golf course and walking, walking on grass and uneven surfaces," White said this week over FaceTime from Canada, where he's visiting his fiancee's family for the holidays.

"I didn't know what level I was ever gonna play at, but I kept on progressing. It was something that motivated me, that even if I didn't come all the way back, it left me in a better spot.

"I think golf, for a lot of people, has some therapeutic benefits."

It was nine months after he first got sick that White was back competing, though he acknowledged he wasn't ready to compete at the highest levels.

In November 2019 came a breakthrough, a win at the Nevada Open, and a check for $31,350. In September 2020, an even-bigger moment — a win at his home state's premier championship, the Michigan Open, including a check for $16,000.

Brett White is a Korn Ferry Tour member for the first time.

White narrowly missed making the second stage of Korn Ferry Tour qualifying school in 2019, and in 2020, there was no Q School because of the pandemic. That was a bummer, but in the grand scheme of things (life, etc.), no big deal.

White got another crack at it last month, and made it. For 2022, he'll be a member of the Korn Ferry Tour, one step away from the promised land, the PGA Tour.

"It's a big deal, for sure. It's a big step in my career," said White, whose younger sister, Sarah, plays on the Symetra Tour, the LPGA Tour's development circuit. "It's been kind of a long time coming.

"I was almost at the end of the window that I kind of gave myself. ... I was giving myself till 30."

In 2017, White could barely open a door. Now, doors are opening for him, including sponsorship opportunities — among them, one from Melvindale's Fredi the PizzaMan, who read about White's story in 2020 and offered to help. White will showcase Fredi Bello's autism foundation on his hats throughout the 2022 Korn Ferry Tour. Any little bit helps in a sport where you can earn six figures and not profit a dime, factoring in all the traveling, hotels, food, caddie fees and taxes.

Before he got sick, White had status on the PGA Tour Latinoamérica, and had been playing well. But there were no medical exemptions to keep his status, like there are on the higher tours. So, as he said, he "felt cheated," missing out on those tournaments.

But it didn't take him long to get over that mind set. He doesn't feel cheated anymore. He feels blessed.

"As I got better, my dreams got bigger," said White, who plans to play about 22 events in 2022.  "At first, I was just worrying about being able to walk again.

"I got a bad end of the deal, but I wanted to at least get back, make a few cuts and play professionally again.

"If I do end my career, then it wasn't from my virus."

Golf Digest: A pro golfer had to relearn how to walk, talk and remember. What happened next is remarkable

'I have this wonderful life'

Nagel, 30, was a junior at Michigan State in the fall of 2012 when she felt, frankly, like hell. Like, all the time. The boiling point came right before Thanksgiving, when the women's golf team held one of their Friday Fundays. That day, it was kickboxing.

"No way I can kickbox," Nagel said.

She went to the doctor — and that triggered a battery of tests, including a biopsy, eventually leading to a diagnosis of thyroid cancer. She had a lump the size, ironically, of a golf ball.

Within days, she was in Ann Arbor, having surgery at University of Michigan Hospital.

"That was painful for me," Nagel said, with a laugh, and she wasn't talking about the surgery.

"I wore my Spartan gear every time I went."

By the end of March 2013, she wearing her Spartan gear — on the golf course. The next year, as a senior, she was first-team All-Big Ten. She finished her collegiate career with the fourth-lowest scoring average in school history, before turning pro in 2015.

Five years later, the mid-Michigan native secured her LPGA Tour card for the first time, and kept it for 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic made for two-year memberships on the major tours.

Thanks to two top-20 finishes the second half of 2021, she surged to earn just less than $50,000 for the year. Not bad, but not enough to keep her card. That meant, back to Q School, which is tough enough in a normal year. This year, the LPGA made it eight rounds, over two weeks, on two different courses. It was meant to separate the good from the great. 

"Really," said Nagel, "it kind of proves to yourself how tough you are." 

Liz Nagel will be on the LPGA Tour for a third consecutive year.

Nagel didn't need much proof. She beat cancer — this winter, it'll have been eight years cancer-free; she only has to see her doctor once a year — but she continues to battle the effects of having no thyroid. She'll take a pill every day, forever. She struggles adjusting to changing weather conditions, an issue in golf. Fatigue often is a problem, too. But it wasn't at Q School, where she finished tied for 32nd, keeping her LPGA Tour playing status. She doesn't have top status, but should be able to get into at least 15 or more tournaments in 2022.

Nagel, who picked up a sponsorship from Detroit-based Rocket Mortgage in 2022, will have to make the most of those tournaments to keep her card for 2023, so there'll be pressure, just like there was at Q School.

But pressure is what you make of it, and often how one handles that reflects what one has gone through to get to this point.

"Golf in itself will teach you perspective, and if you don't want it to, too bad," Nagel, battling a cold, said over the phone back home in DeWitt, where she's spending the holidays before hitting the road to start 2022. "It just makes you realize what's important in life.

"It makes me appreciate all these opportunities that I'm still able to have, appreciate my coach (MSU's Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll), my teammates and especially my family. They were there for me. 

"I know some people that let golf define them. I see some golfers that really get wrapped up in it, and probably in an unhealthy way. This helps me keep everything in front of me. I take it for what it is.

"I have this wonderful life. I play golf for a living. Not, it's not always glamorous.

"But it's a hell of a lot better than worrying about cancer."

Golf Digest: Playing for your tour card isn't quite as nerve-wracking after you've fought cancer

'Golf is not worth stressing about'

While White and Nagel still are new to the pro-tour life and, in most cases, grind, Gillis, 53, isn't. He played in 196 PGA Tour events from the 1990s into last decade, before transitioning onto golf's senior-circuit, the 50-and-older Champions Tour.

He quickly grabbed his Champions Tour card, with five top-10 finishes in his first eight events, and had full status the last two years.

But he struggled in 2021, and had to go to Q School this month. It was his first trip to Q School since 2009.

"They're never fun," Gillis said. "I did remember that. These are miserable.

"Once I got in the middle of it, I'm like, 'This sucks, again.'"

It didn't suck when it was all said and done. Gillis, despite a late double-bogey in his final round, finished fifth, securing the last Champions Tour card for 2022 — allowing him to continue searching for that elusive major-tour win that has eluded him, narrowly at times.

Gillis' struggles in 2020 and 2021 can be in part attributed to a neck injury, and some other nagging ailments.

But Gillis also puts some of the blame on himself. It was too easy when he got out onto the Champions Tour, as it often is for the newly minted 50-year-olds. But the Champions Tour can be a sprint, in tournaments, which are three rounds instead of four, and in years. At 50, you're the kid. Often, at 52 or 53, you're over the hill (unless you're the ageless Bernhard Langer), considering the steady influx of prime-time talent. In recent years, the likes of Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Ernie Els, K.J. Choi and others became eligible.

"I think you just let your guard down a little bit," Gillis said over the phone from his home in Florida. "I got off my game a little bit. I probably did take it for granted. I don't think I worked as hard as I needed to.

"I felt at the end of the year, I was like, 'Listen, we've gotta get back to work, get more focused here and decide if we really want to commit to this or not.'" 

Tom Gillis will be on the Champions Tour for a fourth year.

Gillis, as a Champions Tour member the last few years, was given a direct ticket to the final stage of Q School, so he used his nearly two-month tournament break to get back into his routine. It was a routine that was easy to get out of, considering he has two teenage kids at home, which most Champions Tour players don't. There are times, Gillis said, he doesn't want to be on Tour.

But earlier this month, certainly, wasn't one of those times. Gillis' practice increased and intensified, as did his workouts.

That put him in good physical shape for Q School.

Mentally, he was in a good place, too — he teed it up barely a week after the Nov. 30 shooting at Oxford High, nine miles from where he grew up. A cousin, who at 15 is considered a nephew by Gillis, is a student at the school, was in the school during the attack. The cousin was only a room or two from the shooting, jetted out a side door and ran the two miles home, never stopping.

That's real life. Golf is just golf, and, quite frankly, Gillis has had a pretty darned good career.

"When you're at Tour School, you're always trying to somehow get away from the pressure, get yourself to relax. ... When you get back to the room, you sit around and think," Gillis said. 

"That definitely did" put things in perspective, Gillis added. "Golf is not worth stressing about."

In the cards

A look at golfers from Michigan with status on major golf tours for 2022


►Brian Stuard, Jackson, Oakland University


►Liz Nagel, DeWitt, Michigan State


►Ryan Brehm, Traverse City, Michigan State

►Joey Garber, Petoskey, Georgia

►Brett White, East Kentwood, Eastern Michigan


►Sarah Burnham, Michigan State

►Sarah White, East Kentwood, Western Michigan, Texas State


►Tom Gillis, Lake Orion, Oakland Community College

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984