Mario Tiziani came into this week's first stage of PGA Tour Champions Qualifying School as prepared as any rejuvenated 51-year-old golfer backed by a successful career as a sports agent possibly could.
He spent some time in Arizona playing and practicing. The Madison native paid particular attention to chipping and putting and was determined to arrive at his qualifier at Buckhorn Springs Golf & Country Club in Valrico, Fla., "not having anything left to chance."
Tiziani left Friday with a chance, moving one small step closer to joining brother-in-law Steve Stricker and fellow Madison native Jerry Kelly on golf's senior circuit.
Tiziani shot his second straight 2-under-par 70 and moved up four spots into sole possession of seventh place at 7-under 281. The former University of Wisconsin golfer finished 10 strokes behind medalist David Branshaw and four shots clear of the 72-hole score it took to finish among the top 17 and advance to the Q-School Finals Dec. 7-10 at the TPC Tampa Bay.
That's where the task of gaining fully exempt status on the PGA Tour Champions will get tricky.
Only the top five finishers at the final stage of Q-School earn fully exempt status for the 2022 season. Those who finish sixth through 30th are eligible for associate membership for the 2022 season, allowing them to enter Monday qualifiers throughout the year for the final four spots into that week's event.
For now, though, Tiziani will celebrate successfully negotiating the first hurdle in his quest to get there.
"Getting through this stage means a lot," Tiziani said in a voice text to Wisconsin.Golf. "I've worked hard this year. I've kind of put the clubs back on my shoulder in January, I guess, and worked hard to get competitive again. It means a lot to get through this.
"The Finals are no joke. There are only five spots. It's going to be guns a blazing, I think, at least a lot more than this stage, for sure. Only five guys make it and you know guys are going to play well. You're not going to be able to be very cautious like I was this first stage and kind of pick off a birdie here and there."
Tiziani picked off an eagle two holes into the final round Friday, holing a long putt on the par-5 second hole to jump to 2-under. He added birdies at Nos. 7 and 8 and another birdie at No. 12, allowing him to withstand bogeys at Nos. 13, 15 and 18.
"At that point, I knew that pars were going to be good," Tiziani said of the stretch after his eagle. "I kept it going, I stayed aggressive for the most part and I was 5-under through 12. I definitely limped in, but a couple of (the bogeys) were bad breaks.
"It is an ebb and flow during the day. There are tough holes. You know there are holes that are coming up that require demanding shots at times. Those are all things that weigh on your mind, try to stay in the present and not to get too far ahead. At the end, I knew I was in good shape. It was a tough day. I was pretty sure my score was good so there wasn't a lot of stress at the end."
The same couldn't be said for Fox Point's Michael Crowley and Menomonie native Ben Walter at the second of the three first-stage qualifiers in Nipton, Calif.
Crowley, the head professional at Morningstar Golfers Club in Waukesha, shot a closing 72 at Primm Valley GC to finish in a tie for 23rd at 2-under 282 with Walter, a two-time Big Ten Conference champion at UW back in the day whose comeback from a 72-73 start also fell short. Walter, who closed 68-69, and Crowley finished two shots outside of the top 17.
"The experience was great," Crowley wrote via Facebook Messenger. "Coming off a 16th-place finish at the (PGA) National Senior Professionals Championship, I was feeling really good about my game. ... I was really proud of how I manage my golf game, how I hung in there mentally and I hit it really very well. I didn’t miss a green until my 27th hole of the tournament. But (I was ) disappointed (because) I gave myself a lot of good opportunities, good looks, and just couldn’t capitalize on those opportunities. I had it right there in front of me and next time I will capitalize on those opportunities and make it through."
Walter added via text message: "I’m pretty disappointed; I played well enough to advance but just didn’t get it done. But, I’m also really happy to be back competing, my game's come a long way in the last few months, and I’m looking forward to finding more to play in."
Fox Point's Skip Kendall, Brookfield native Tim Cantwell, Jr. and Mosinee's Kelly Berger will compete in a Stage 1 qualifier next week in Florida. Tiziani, who made his PGA Tour Champions debut at the American Family Insurance Championship (T-71) in Madison in June and finished T-11 at the Sanford International in September, knows he is fortunate to keep alive his quest for a full-time gig on the senior circuit.
"I've got to get better still," Tiziani said. "The nerves are a thing. I think they are for everybody, but my goal is to conquer those and just be better when the heat is on. I'm getting better, but that's my goal."