Matt Picanso’s first run through Q-School met its end beneath the Santa Rosa Plateau at Bear Creek Golf Club on the outskirts of Murrieta.
A month earlier, the Bakersfield native, just entering life as a professional golfer, had shot 4-under in Pensacola, Florida. That punched his ticket to the second stage of Q-School, the qualification process for the Web.com Tour (now called the Korn Ferry Tour). And so, in Murrieta, Picanso was one good performance away from the PGA Tour’s developmental offshoot.
Two rounds in, he had a 74 and a 66 under his belt and was on track — but on his third run through the course, he got overwhelmed.
“Maybe I didn’t believe I belonged with a lot of those guys,” Picanso said. “There were some big names, people that I’m like, ‘Oh, I saw that guy on TV!'”
He wasn’t in the right headspace and got “enamored” of watching his competitors. Picanso shot an 84 in the third round. He finished tied for 59th at Bear Creek. After that, he spent time caddying on the Web.com Tour, getting immersed in the level of competition. He’d still be thwarted at Bear Creek in later years.
That made it so much sweeter when, eight years after his first attempt, Picanso, now 39, returned to Murrieta and shot a 17-under 271. He didn’t just qualify for the Korn Ferry Tour; he finished in first place at the second stage.
“It’s been just kind of an up-and-down journey for me,” he said, “so to finally get it done — especially there at Bear Creek where I’ve had some narrow misses in the previous years — makes it even cooler.”
Much has been made of Picanso’s unlikely route to a career in professional golf. He played baseball at Stockdale High School and didn’t commit himself to golf until a standout stint at Bakersfield College — only to drop the game for much of his 20s following the death of his godfather, as the Golf Channel reported, while he tried to find direction in his life. Eventually he enrolled in a golf academy at San Diego that helped him rediscover the sport and get involved in the competitive scene.
“I remember sitting in my econ class junior year,” his brother Brett Picanso said. “It’s his first tour event, and I’m watching him on my phone, and he won that first event.”
Since then, Matt’s been grinding on mini-tours to make his way as a professional golfer, and making frequent runs at Q-School in the hopes of ascending to the next level.
Brett caddied for Matt over the years and has had a front-row seat for his resurgence.
“To me, it speaks to his character, grit and resilience,” he said, “because I think that there’s an accepted, or a traditional path to these high-level tours, and it’s out of a prestigious amateur career and a strong four-year career at a university.”
Picanso summarized what he’s learned from his path: “At the end of the day, you don’t have to do anything that anybody else says,” he said. “There is no normal.”
Even since he became a professional, sometimes it’s been tough for Picanso to keep going. Aaron Dexheimer, his longtime golf coach, describes their relationship as a mutual one of encouragement and commitment. Dexheimer said that since one pivotal moment several years ago at which he helped motivate Picanso to press forward, Picanso has recorded 17 wins and 50 top-five finishes across 75 tournaments, with an average score of 68.4.
“Matt wanted to give up — but I don’t think Matt wanted to give up,” Dexheimer said. “He just didn’t know where he wanted to go. So we made a game plan and Matt has stuck to it.”
Picanso had one taste of the Korn Ferry Tour in June when he got a sponsor exemption to play at the BMW Charity Pro-Am alongside world-champion boxer Canelo Álvarez, a fellow tutee of Dexheimer’s who has become a friend. And while Álvarez earned a win in his celebrity division, Picanso was cut after two rounds against the touring pros, leading him to wonder again, as he had at Bear Creek: “Did I really earn this?”
“Now, I feel like I actually used that week as motivation to get through Q-School this year,” Picanso said.
Transferring his win-or-bust mindset from smaller tours to Q-School is what he credits for his success this time around.
“I’ve always gone to Q-School (in the past) with the mindset of ‘survive and advance,’” he said. “That works for some guys … but I’ve always played kind of cutthroat mini-tour golf, which is, if you don’t win, you don’t really make money. And I’ve always had to make money to survive.”
Picanso had made the cut at the first stage of Q-School by just two strokes in St. George, Utah, after shooting a 72 in the fourth round and dropping 15 places. There would be no such drama in Murrieta, where he bookended his first-place showing with 66’s in the first and fourth rounds to ensure his qualification for next year’s tour.
It was a monumental moment in Picanso’s unconventional career. And it was undercut only slightly by his showing at the final stage of Q-School in Savannah, Georgia, where he failed to secure exempt status that would allow him to dictate his schedule of events for the upcoming tour. Instead, with conditional status, he may have limited access to some competitions.
Dexheimer believes Picanso has plenty of success ahead of him if he continues to shore up his weaknesses as a player, one at a time. It’ll be a gradual process, like the one that got him where he is now.
“Everything that Matt’s got in front of him now is because of what he’s done,” Dexheimer said. “Not because somebody believed in him to give him a shot to do it. Matt’s got there because of what he’s done for himself.”