By Chris Whitfield
For the past four years, Matt Hughes has been chasing his dream of playing professional golf at the highest levels.
Since graduating from the University of Alabama in 2009, the Dalton High School alum has played on various mini-tours across the Southeast, living out of his car and sleeping four (or more) to a room at some stops along the way. He’s been playing golf to keep his head above water, striving for the day when something bigger might come his way.
And after four long years, he is ready to take his biggest step in the game.
“I feel like I just started, to be honest,” said Hughes, who will play today in the qualifying school finals of the Web.com Tour, the developmental tour for the PGA Tour. “You work so hard for those experiences on the road in the mini-tours, but you can’t move up.
“Now I feel like the journey has really begun and I have a chance to make some hay and keep going and keep going.”
Hughes, along with a field that includes 2012 U.S. Amateur champion Steven Fox, who played at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, will compete over six rounds on the Nicklaus Course and the Stadium Course at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif.
Hughes will tee off at 9 a.m. Pacific time today on the back nine of the Stadium Course. Competition will continue with one round each day through Tuesday.
“You ought to see the pictures I have been sending my wife and my parents,” Hughes said while walking up the 10th fairway during a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon. “It is incredible. You don’t have to be here long to realize why people retire out here.”
All of the field of more than 150 golfers have earned status on the Web.com Tour for the upcoming season, but their performance over the next six days will determine their order of status on the tour.
The top 44 players (and ties) in the tournament will earn full exemption on the tour through at least the first half of the season, along with players who finished in the top 75 of last year’s Web.com Tour regular season. The remainder of the field will earn conditional exemptions, which will gain them entry into selected events.
Hughes, who recently moved back to Dalton after living in Mississippi, advanced to the finals by shooting a 2-under-par 142 in a two-day qualifier at Deerwood Golf Club in Kingwood, Texas. The top 20 at that event advanced to today’s competition, and Hughes tied for eighth. It is the fourth time he has gone through the rigors of “Q-School” but his first finals tournament.
“You try to not take it for granted at all and enjoy it,” Hughes said. “(My attitude) is just being grateful that you are here and happy to have the opportunity, but it feels like the big leagues finally.”
He played practice rounds on both courses at PGA West earlier this week and believes his game is ready for the challenges that lie ahead, but he’s also simply trying to soak up as much of the experience as possible.
“My game is probably as good as it has ever been,” Hughes said. “Everything I have been working on has been validated by my performance and it seems to be as good as it has been all year. You really just try to make it as simple as you can. I have confidence in the way that I have prepared. You can really kind of overwhelm yourself if you look too far ahead.”
Still, it has been hard to ignore the scenery and the condition of the course.
“It is a really, really cool place,” he said. “It is so different from the East Coast and seeing the mountains right here. The weather is great and the playing surface is incredible and perfect. Visually, it is more intimidating than it really plays. The greens are exactly what you want ... rewarding good shots and punishing mistakes. It is a second-shot course and a chipping and putting contest, I believe.”
Being steady throughout the week is the goal for Hughes, who plans to adhere to the old golf edict of playing one shot at a time.
“It is a cliché that people say all of the time, but the people that are really good live it out and lean on it,” Hughes said. “You do it one play at a time, one shot at a time in any sport. You can’t let the past or the future affect you.”
And he believes his mental game is in full effect as well.
“I am very humble and grateful, and the prayer is to be patient and have a calm mind,” he said. “I have put in the physical work and prepared all year long, and once the tournament starts that physical part is all over.
“All you can control is your mind and mindset. I expect that I am going to play well and confident, but it is such a long week.”