Sitting around the dinner table at the San Roque Club, which was once the residence of the Domecq sherry family, the class for the European golf tour's Apollo Week (a crash course in what the young pro can expect on tour) looked as if they should be in bed by nine o'clock. So young, so impressionable, so talented. In a month or so they will be thrown into the real world and not all will survive.
At least Apollo Week, an admirable and unique concept, has helped to prepare them for life on the European Tour. In November they had gained their Tour cards through the gruelling Qualifying School and the next step, harder by far, is to retain membership. It can be an expensive and soul- destroying experience but the overriding philosophy of the young and hungry is simple: if we don't try it we'll never know how good we are.
In any case it has got to be better than the alternative. For Robert Coles, of Hornchurch, Essex, that meant getting up at 5am to work for his father's stall in Petticoat Lane or Leather Lane, selling women's clothes. Coles is a true-blue Cockney who thinks that the street market in Eastenders is an absolute joke. The trouble is that to play on Tour costs about pounds 1,000 a week.
"I don't know how I'm going to do it," Coles said. Like most of them he is looking for a sponsor. "Maybe I could sell shares in myself and if I win a few bob I could pay a return on people's investment." He will not be able to afford a caddie, at least not for the first two rounds of any tournament he manages to get into. If he makes the half-way cut and plays in the final two rounds, Tour regulations stipulate that a caddie has to be employed. It would not do to be seen pulling a trolley.
Of the class of '96 George Ryall, at the ripe old age of 28, has left it late. Ryall, from Weston-Super-Mare, is banking on the generosity of his bank manager. "It's got to the stage," Ryall said, "where I've borrowed so much money the bank can't refuse me further loans. If I stop playing I'll never be able to pay them back. This is like a lottery only we're paying pounds 1,000 a week for a ticket."
Prize-money on the European Tour totals about pounds 25m and is structured to reward success. The rich can become super-rich. Ian Woosnam was a regular to the Qualifying School, living in a camper van on a diet of baked beans. Now he lives in tax exile in Jersey and travels to tournaments in his own jet. Not so long ago Barry Lane, another habitue of the Q School, was an assistant professional at a public course in Berkshire. The other day he received pounds 666,000 for winning a thing called the Andersen Consulting World Championship of Golf. Most of the superstars gave the event a miss despite the fact that it boasted the biggest purse in the game.
The Rhondda Masters does not have quite the same glamour attached to it but Richard Dinsdale won the title last year and with it pounds 800. The career of Dinsdale, who comes from Newport in Wales, has been interrupted by a knee injury but he reports, almost with a matter of pride, that he has been treated by the man who has tended the more famous joints of Ian Rush and Ieuan Evans.
Most of the lads at San Roque played football at one time and discovered they had an aptitude for golf when they accompanied their father for the odd round. Steve Webster, who looks as if he could be Ryan Giggs's younger brother, was a midfielder at Coventry City's school of excellence until he decided, at 15, that golf would be his bag. He began with a handicap of 34 and was soon playing off scratch. Great things are expected, but he too has gone into debt to finance his career.
No other tour provides a facility like Apollo Week which covers virtually every aspect of the game. Michael Welch, who had an outstanding amateur career, said: "If you don't listen to everybody you're absolutely crazy. There's years and years of experience there." Many of the graduates, while lapping up the lessons of the former Ryder Cup players Tommy Horton and John Jacobs, and the "putting doctor" Harold Swash, were particularly interested in the contribution of Alan Fine.
He is a sports psychologist who has worked with, amongst others, Colin Montgomerie and David Feherty. One of Feherty's problems was a lack of concentration and Fine got him to write out a cheque for pounds 1,000, made to a nominated charity, before every round. If Feherty felt that he had not focused 100 per cent on every shot he would lose the cheque.
Come to think of it, perhaps Feherty, who has indicated he is retiring from the game after going through marital problems, and Montgomerie are not the ideal role models. Big Monty has been phenomenally successful but Fine's work has not prevented the Scotsman from incurring a series of fines for undiplomatic behaviour. The one thing missing from Apollo Week, under the category of "do not imitate", is a mock up of Big Monty leaving the 18th green with steam coming from his ears and foul language from his lips.
Number crunching: Matthew Syed gets a helping hand from the England coach, Chen Xinhua, as he makes progress in the European Olympic table tennis qualifying tournament at the Nynex Arena, Manchester last week Photograph: David Ashdown