You could say that LPGA Tour veteran Nicole Jeray has mastered the tour’s final stage of qualifying. That’s because since October 1993, she has played in the LPGA’s Qualifying Tournament finals 17 times.
“I need to treat every tournament like it’s Q-school and then I wouldn’t be here,” said Jeray, 41, of Berwyn, Ill. “I’ve been here so many times, I’m just accepting it, but this is the last time I’m coming to the final stage!”
Hopefully for her, that’s true.
LPGA Tour members who return to Q-school are here because they didn’t finish high enough on the season money list and must play their way into the top 40 of qualifying to retain LPGA membership for the next year. Jeray finished No. 100 after 11 LPGA tournaments this season and hopes to improve her status this week.
“My current LPGA status gets me into just about nothing,” said Jeray. “ I’m here to get my full 2012 tour card.”
While it’s been no picnic to make Q-school finals a regular date on her annual calendar, Jeray, at least, has made the trip to Daytona Beach, Fla., worth her plane fare. She finished 22nd last year and in 2009, she finished in the top 20 for full status.
“I’ve done it many times,” said Jeray. “My record here is very good.”
But nobody wants to just be a Q-School Queen. And nobody wants to be here if they can avoid the 90-hole marathon of make-or-break golf that usually coincides with Central Florida’s cold snap.
Jeray is also different than most other veteran pros who make an annual pilgrimage to the final stage of qualifying. While she would prefer to play well enough during the season to avoid Q-school, the Illinois native also appreciates the fact that her golf today is played under completely different conditions than how she played only a few years ago.
That’s because she was diagnosed with narcolepsy in 1996, a chronic sleep disorder that causes excessive sleepiness and frequent daytime sleep attacks. Even after she was diagnosed, improper and inadequate medication hampered her ability to perform at her best as a touring professional.
Jeray could write a book about the many incidents that happened to her when she fell asleep while playing professional golf. She recalls waking up while playing golf during one pro-am tournament at a professional event and hearing one of the amateurs in her group ask, “Now, tell me again why you just teed up that ball in the middle of the fairway?” Or the time she woke up behind the wheel of her car driving 70 mph down a highway and was less than a foot away from the back of a tractor trailer truck.
“I’ve had to figure out how to play professional golf with narcolepsy and that’s something nobody else out here has had to deal with,” said Jeray, whose specialized medication is covered by her sponsor, Jazz Pharmaceuticals. “I probably lost five to 10 years of my golf career wrestling with the effects of it.”
Jeray guesses that she played for four years on the LPGA Futures Tour and on smaller mini-tours while taking medicines that actually made her sleepier. It wasn’t until 2001 that new medicines started being produced that enabled her to function normally. Prior to that, for example, it took her twice as long as other players to drive to domestic tournaments because she had to plan around how long she could remain awake in the car behind the wheel.
“I’m not saying that all of those years were a waste, but I think I could have done a lot better,” said Jeray, who won three times on the Futures Tour and who has been on and off the LPGA Tour since the early 1990s. “I’ve felt good for the last five years and my best year on tour was in 1995 before I was diagnosed with narcolepsy.”
Throughout the years, Jeray has met other people with narcolepsy through a national support group and she has learned more about things she can do to reduce the effects of the disorder.
“Talking to others who also have this has helped me learn to deal with my body and to understand what makes me more tired,” she said. “For example, doctors weren’t telling me that I needed to drink more water and to eat better foods. Back then, I would take a pill and it was supposed to make me feel better. It’s just not that simple.”
Of course, neither is making a living playing golf. But while Jeray still has to pay extra careful attention to proper nutrition, exercise and rest, she is the first to admit that she is not yet ready to give up professional golf – even if she has to go through Q-school each year.
“I love playing competitive golf and I love this whole lifestyle,” said Jeray. “Plus, when I turn 45, I can play on the Legends Tour [for LPGA members age 45 and over]. That’s incentive to keep playing and to keep myself in shape so I can play out there.”
But for now, it’s one shot at a time for five rounds at a place that Jeray knows as well as anybody.- By Lisa D. Mickey, LPGA senior staff writer