Raymie’s star burning brightly

PADRAIG HARRINGTON takes a week off before partnering Paul McGinley in next week’s $4m World Cup in Seville, Darren Clarke sets out for South Africa via Japan for a money-spinning end to his season — and 168 hopefuls make their way to San Roque in Spain for the European Tour’s final qualifying school, simply hoping to be able to rub shoulders with the stars in 2005 (the top 35 and ties will do so).

Six Irishmen will be there: former Ryder Cup winner Philip Walton; Stephen Browne, Michael Hoey and David Higgins who qualified through the Challenge Tour; and Raymond Burns and Colm Moriarty who made it through the nerve-wracking final pre-qualifiers in Spain over the weekend.

The presence of Walton, because of his Ryder Cup status, and Browne, Hoey, Higgins and Moriarty shouldn't come as any great surprise as they have been highly competitive for several years but it is a pleasant surprise to welcome Burns back to the limelight.

There were few more successful Irish amateurs than the man from Banbridge, the winner of all four provincial boys championships back in 1989. He turned professional in 1993, having captured the East of Ireland twice, the St Andrews Trophy and represented Britain & Ireland in both the Walker Cup and the Eisenhower Trophy for the World Championship.

He first dipped his toe in the professional ranks at the 1993 Tour School but failed to gain his card, so he set about acquiring it through the 1994 Challenge Tour. He celebrated his 21st birthday in October of that year in the knowledge that he would compete on the main circuit in 1995, having finished first on the order of merit with a substantial stg£43,584 to his credit after two victories (the Club Med in Italy and the Norwegian Challenge), two seconds, one third and four other top ten finishes from 13 starts.

He shot a final round of 66 in Italy that included four birdies and an eagle, while he enjoyed a three stroke advantage in Norway, so Raymie arrived in the big time with the highest of expectations. Not alone was he clearly a genuine golfing talent but he had a most charming, sometimes devilish, way about him. He could hardly have dreamt of a better start to his rookie year when he finished 8th from the glittering field that competed for the opening event of the '95 season, the Dubai Desert Classic. That superb performance earned him stg£10, 100 and also taught him a lesson.

"Next time I'm in a decent position, I won't play cards until 2am," he commented with a familiar twinkle in his eye. He went on to finish seventh in the BMW Open and retained his card by coming 99th in the money list with stg£68,878. Not all that he might have hoped for at the end of the year, but a solid enough start for all that. He felt his putting had held him back so Burns switched to the broom-handle in 1996 and again revelled in the going at Dubai, this time coming home in fifth place (worth stg£25, 140) and in earning more than stg£80,000 by the end of the year, rose 18 places in the rankings.

"I'm building solidly on a good foundation and I expect to move up to the next level in 1997," he said at the time. Alas, it was not to be. The signs of decline were there when he managed only 97th spot in the rankings for stg£62,432.

The unexpected slump continued in 1998 when he came home in 158th spot, lost his card and it was back to the Tour School and Challenge Tour once again.

After that, little or nothing. The spark was gone, the star had waned and for the next few years he settled for life on the domestic scene and learning the trade of a club professional at Newlands.

He had become an almost forgotten man before turning up at Oliva Nova in Spain for last week's pre-qualifier and immediately served notice that he shouldn't be written off by opening with a sparkling 66 and then following with solid scores of 72, 69 and 72 to finish nine under par in twelfth place, more than enough to ensure his involvement at San Roque this week. It will be fascinating to see if the Ulsterman, who has made Dublin his home for many years, can once again, at the age of 31, make it back into the big time.

Athlone's Colm Moriarty has only been a professional for a couple of years, having turned in 2001 after a fine amateur career capped by his appearance in the successful British & Irish Walker Cup side of that year. He just made it at El Bosque, coming through a seven-man play-off with a birdie at the first hole to claim the 29th and second last place.

To show how tough it is out there, Limerick's Tim Rice shot 71, 72, 70, 74 for one under, which was still only good enough for 56th, while a couple of other former amateur stars, Eamonn Brady of Royal Dublin and Justin Kehoe, were back in 65th and 81st on three and seven over respectively.

Over at Oliva Nova, where Burns came through, Ashbourne pro John Dwyer, who did well in his appearances in European Tour events in the past few years, missed out along with Dundalk's Leslie Walker, Connacht man David Mortimer and the highly promising 15 year-old Ulster amateur Rory Elliott. Ciaran McMonagle, a former Irish Close champion from Donegal, looked a good bet at Emporda when he opened with a 64 but followed up with rounds of 73, 71 and 74 to finish 44th. Michael Collins from Doneraile also missed out at the same venue.

The Tour School starts on Thursday and the leading 75 and ties after 72 holes go through to the final two rounds on Monday and Tuesday, after which the leading 35 and ties gain Tour cards. Among them are tournament winner Roger Chapman of England who lost his card in 1999 after 18 successive years on tour. He led the school that year and afterwards commented: "It was like the 108 first holes of the British Open." You'd be wrong to believe that winning the school is the panacea for all golfing ills. The last three "champions", Johan Skold and Per Nyman of Sweden and England's Richard McEvoy are all back this week.

*Padraig Harrington has improved one place to seventh in the world rankings. Darren Clarke has also gone up one spot from 12 to 11 and Graeme McDowell and Paul McGinley are 60th and 68th respectively.

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