LaQUINTA, Calif. — After a couple of years of walking under ladders and having black cats cross his path, golfer Bobby Gates took firm hold of a four-leaf clover Monday.
In golf's version of the Death Valley Marathon, Gates had survived. After six rounds in six days in California desert weather that had varied from a wind tunnel to a picture postcard — often on the same hole — the 25-year-old Texan reversed a personal trend that had put him in the running for golf's Calamity Jane Award.
His 67-70-68-73-73-66 — 417 was 15 under par, good for a share of third place, and well within the cutoff of eight under.
"You can't even imagine how good this feels," Gates said, just minutes after two-putting from 65 feet on the final hole and completing a bogey-free round.
"That was the goal, to finish strong," he said. "Final rounds have been a struggle for me."
Yes, they have.
Gates, an all-Big 12 golfer at Texas A&M who played 29 events on the PGA Tour this year as a rookie, is most remembered for what happened to him on Oct. 23, the last day of the Children's Miracle Network Classic at Disney World. It was the last day for PGA Tour rankings, when the final list of the top 125 players was made, all assured of exempt status for 2012.
Gates had No. 125 nailed down. Then he three-putted No. 18 and his golfing world crumbled.
Gates recalled the moment Monday: "Three-putting the last hole, any last hole, even for a $2 Nassau, leaves you with a sick feeling."
His wife of 11 months, Lauren, recalled it too: "There we were, afterward, standing around on the putting green, watching the perfect storm hit us. Bobby three-putts, another guy makes a birdie, and we look at the scoreboard and see him drop to No. 126."
Gates had missed by $1,431. He had won $666,735, but D.J. Trahan birdied the last hole and edged ahead on that last day. Gates, to be exempt, had only one other option: the dreaded Q-School.
If you are a pro golfer, you think about Q-School like a diver thinks about sharks or an NFL running back thinks about Ray Lewis. It tests your sanity as much as your swing. You don't so much win as endure.
In retrospect, few were better prepared to endure than Gates.
Three years ago, he missed making the second stage of Q-School when he hit what he thought was a perfect approach shot into the green on the last hole and had it miss by inches and bury in the lip of a bunker. That knocked him out by one shot.
He qualified for the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, but not until the final day of a qualifying playoff had been postponed by rain, making him the last player in. He won the playoff by one shot but arrived late and hassled.
"It's pretty tough to find a place to stay in Pebble Beach at that late a date," Lauren Gates said.
This year, with enough Nationwide Tour points to get into the 29 tour events, and his winnings, he was well set up to cruise into 2012. Then he three-putted at Disney World, went off two weeks later to play in Shanghai and got food poisoning that was so bad he had to withdraw.
"Every portable toilet I saw on the course, I was in," Gates said.
He dragged himself home to the Woodlands, Texas, and didn't even get out of bed for several days.
"Some of our friends got together and did some research," Lauren Gates said. "I don't know how much time it took them to arrive at this, but they said that had Bobby finished just one stroke better in any one of the tournaments where he made the cut, he would have ended up No. 125."
Had there been any doubt about Gates' final status Monday, there was none after he played the 11th hole. He had gone four under on the front nine and stood 218 yards away for his second shot on the 528-yard hole. Then he hit a six-iron to 10 feet and sank the eagle putt.
Lauren, a former Aggies golfer herself, watched the putt drop, knew full well that there was little chance any more bad luck could intervene and responded with tough love.
"Don't give him too much credit," she said. "It was downwind."