The unseen and lonely life at golf’s Euro Tour Qualifying School

The final stage of the European Tour Q-School tees off at PGA Catalunya on Saturday. Around 25 players will emerge smiling at the end of the six-round ordeal but, for the rest, it’s a picture perfect autumn postcard that hides no end of pain and suffering, writes Brian Keogh.

The unseen and  lonely life at golf’s Euro Tour Qualifying School

reporter at the Q-School, aka the annual European Tour Qualifying School final stage, can be made to feel about as comfortable as a doctor called from a fancy dress party to the emergency ward. The atmosphere is grim and faces are longer than a Bubba Watson drive for all bar those lucky card winners — or those who achieve their goal of a Challenge Tour ticket. The young and innocent wander among grizzled veterans grimly battling to hang on to their livelihoods.

It’s a golfing zombie movie where the wide-eyed and innocent amble along side-by-side with the walking dead, players battling the problems that have brought them to this golfing purgatory in the first place.

It’s a waiting room for the afflicted, the golf junkies who still crave the adrenaline rush of the great circus.

With the Challenge Tour now the breeding ground, few young stars emerge from Q-School, though Andy Sullivan and Matt Fitzpatrick stand out from the recent crop.

This was a bumper year for the 2014 graduates, but, even then, fewer than 11 of the 27 retained their cards via the European Tour with another player opting not to play any European Tour events at all, eventually winning a better card via this season’s Top 15 graduates from the Challenge Tour Rankings.

The poster boys from he class of 2014 were Fitzpatrick and Anirban Lahiri, who had sensational years, winning tournaments and making the Top 20 in the Race to Dubai and the world’s Top 50 along the way.

Lahiri, who made the Presidents’ Cup team, was already a member of the world’s Top 100 when he started at Q-School last year while Fitzpatrick was a US Amateur champion with tons of potential.

For most mere mortals, the Q-School is an annual event on their schedules should they finish outside the Top 110 in the Race to Dubai or the Top 15 on the Challenge Tour.

By the time it ends on Thursday week, close to 900 players will have taken part in the Qualifying School across three stages, each paying at least €1,600 for the privilege before a hotel room or a flight is booked or a meal eaten.

At the end of it, if all has gone to plan, they emerge from PGA Catalunya Resort in Girona like survivors crawling out of the wreckage of a downed airliner. Denis O’Brien’s 36-hole complex is a wonderful place for a golf holiday or millionaires looking for modernist villas with pools and top-of-the-range features — the price tag can run to €1 million.

It’s a luxurious twilight zone and apart from the occasional smattering of applause from a family member or a casual walker, there is no atmosphere. The only sounds to be heard are occasional, anguished shouts of “Fore”, the cries of builders, occasional hammering and, if you listen close enough, grown men crying.

Your intrepid reporter can be seen shuffling through the autumn leaves, failing miserably to remain inconspicuous amongst the pines and the cork oaks. When each group has an average gallery of three, you stand out like a Kerryman amid the Dubs on Hill 16 and might as well don a black shroud, a skull mask and stand on some lonely hummock with a scythe in hand. You are the Grim Reaper of golf. You tread lightly.

There was a time when the European Tour Q-School was a significant event on the calendar and finding a seat in the press room, as recently as 2006, was a struggle if you did not get there early in the morning. Now, the major news agencies no longer send reporters. No UK or Irish newspapers send a staff writer.

The growing strength of the Challenge Tour, where the top 15 players earn full European Tour cards, has reduced the impact of Q-School. The graduates averaged fewer than 21 starts — Fitzpatrick will get 32 in the end because he won and qualified for the Final Series — making it a struggle to earn the €250,000 they will need to keep their jobs.

No wonder Philip Walton, the hero of the 1995 Ryder Cup matches, described Q-School as something akin to a prison sentence. And yet the razzle dazzle of the bright lights attracts them in droves every year.

Irish participation has waned a little in recent years, given the economic downturn. But the return, despite the falling number of entries, remains abysmal. We had 39 entries for the first stage in 2012, 32 in 2013, 22 last year and 28 this year. While there are high hopes we will have some graduates this year, only David Higgins (16th in 2012) and Kevin Phelan (17th in 2013) have won a full card via the Final Stage over the past five years. Little wonder that Niall Kearney and Niall Turner have opted to concentrate on trying to make it through their status on the Asian Tour.

Their decision could prove to be inspired one, with the European Tour planning a merger with the Asian Tour from 2017 which would give players on both circuits access to more events and create what will be a Rest of the World Tour to work in tandem with the PGA Tour.

There is still a long way to go before those plans are finalised but as Irishman Mike Kerr, the chief executive of the Asian Tour said earlier this year, the creation of what has been described as “a mega-tour that will stretch from the Atlantic coast of Ireland to the shores of the Pacific in the Far East” is a game changer.

The Asian Tour Q-School gave Gary Murphy his first pro win but why Ireland struggles to get players from the elite amateur level and through the obstacle course to the European Tour proper is something of a mystery.

Walker Cup players such as Noel Fox, Jonny Caldwell, Paul Cutler and Brian McElhinney have all ended up on the cusp of glory while others have sparkled briefly on the Challenge Tour and failed to progress.

More still, such as multiple championship winner Simon Ward, not to mention a long list of PGA Irish Region strongmen have tried and failed.

Even successful professionals such as Michael Hoey came close to quitting as they ended up at Q-School year after year.

Like Hoey, Peter Lawrie eventually got his card via the Challenge Tour rankings. But the Dubliner will be back at the Final Stage next weekend alongside Phelan, Damien McGrane, Simon Thornton, Ruaidhri McGee and the few survivors from yesterday’s Second Stage.

When one considers the Q-School adventure costs a player up to €5,000, it’s a major commitment for people who are not making money.

Only the top 70 and ties make the cut after four rounds at the Final Stage, earning Challenge Tour cards for their trouble. For some, that’s the goal, as former Challenge Tour winner Colm Moriarty explains.

“In some ways it is the Challenge Tour Q-School now rather than the European Tour Q-School,” Moriarty says.

“The hardest thing perhaps is to bring your normal attitude to every stage. It’s like the final nail in your coffin — getting through tour school. But if you haven’t played well throughout the year, you can’t be relying on the school to make a breakthrough.

“Whatever tour you are playing on, it is rare to see a guy play poorly all year and then play really well at the school. You have got to look at your game over the year rather than over the week, which is effectively what tour school is if you play all the stages.

“I made the cut three times at the final stage but never actually got a full tour card. For the lower ranking guys, unless you get to the final stage and make the cut, you are not really getting anything out of Tour School. You have to get to the final stage and make the cut to get a full Challenge Tour card and have somewhere to play. That gets people off those satellite tours — the Europro Tour, the Alps, wherever.”

The Golfing Union of Ireland’s national coach, Neil Manchip, tried Q-School himself in his early days a professional but quickly realised he wasn’t cut out for tour life.

He doesn’t actively encourage or discourage Ireland’s top amateurs when it comes to the professional ranks but having once been bitten by the bug himself, he understands why they take the plunge.

“You want guys to make their own decisions and do things for the best reasons,” the Scot explains. “And give it their best effort. Some guys stay at it for a long time, some guys give it a couple of years and decide to give it up. You just never know.

“You could be talking about acting, somebody who wants to be a Hollywood star. You have got to do what you want to do and nobody should say what you should or shouldn’t do. If you have some ability and the capacity to learn, those people usually do pretty well. There is no formula. Just get it around the course in as few shots as you can.

“It is hard to adjust to tournament life well, no matter how good or talented you were. It is very difficult to play your hobby for a living with all the travelling and tournament play. Constantly judging yourself, constantly trying to get better. Very few people can do it.”

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