Golf: An old hand at the cruellest cut

The Qualifying School is golf's most agonising examination of the soul. It will be Phil Golding's 14th visit

PHILIP GOLDING played in the Sarazen World Open at Chateau Elan, Atlanta, last week and did what he's been doing throughout the year. He missed the cut. This week he will be at the European Tour qualifying school in Spain, doing what he does every year. Attempting to get his card.

In the 1998 Volvo Ranking, the tour's FTSE index, Colin Montgomerie was the top performer with pounds 993,000; Golding was off the chart, 189th with pounds 6,400. What have we got here? Mika Hakkinen against a bloke in a Skoda?

"You look on the practice range and there's no difference between the players," Golding said. "They're all good ball strikers. It's making a score that counts. One stroke a day is the difference between winners and losers. It's as small as that." From Chateau Elan to Bleak House in a week.

Golding qualified for the World Open by winning the Mauritius Open two years ago. In Atlanta he played with Warren Bennett and Gordon Sherry, neither of whom will be at Q school. Bennett has already secured his card by dominating the Challenge Tour, Europe's second tier; Sherry the former Amateur Champion, made no impression on the Challenge Tour and has decided not to go back to school. With no membership card, he will either have to rough it again on the Challenge Tour (small purses, midnight in Moscow, no glamour) or take what he can get from sponsors' invitations on the regular circuit (large purses, players lounges, courtesy cars).

For Golding, the school is purgatory revisited. Some players who make the off-season pilgrimage to the Costa del Sol as many as half a dozen times are regarded as recidivists. The Spanish Inquisition asked fewer questions than this gruesome examination. And Golding is making his 14th visit. They should give him an old school noose. "I'd rather be somewhere else," he said. "I'd rather be looking forward to a nice Christmas with pots of money in the bank."

So why does he put himself through this annual nightmare? "To give myself a chance of winning a tournament. That dream is always with me."

Lee Westwood was a graduate of the school and at the age of 25 has won millions. The class of '98 attracted more than 1,000 entries, who have now been whittled down to 180. Beginning on Wednesday they will play six rounds of Russian roulette over two courses, San Roque and Sotogrande, and by next Monday the leading 35 and ties, if they are still standing, will be allowed to compete on the European Tour.

They say that if you come through the school you can survive anything. Golding has become a star pupil. In his last four appearances he's been in the top 10. After finishing 156th in the ranking last year, he won pre-qualifying and distinguished himself at San Roque. It was restricted to four rounds (rain washed out the last two days) and Golding finished at eight under par along with those other household names, the Dutchmen, Chris Van Der Velde and Robert-Jan Derksen and the Swede Fredrik Henge. They were the top four to graduate. All four are back between San Roque and a hard place, along with men who had made it, like Steven Richardson and Richard Boxall, and one who has it made, young Justin Rose, the sensation of the Open at Royal Birkdale in July.

"He's half my age," the 36-year-old Golding said. "Just a baby. I played with him in South Africa. He's a good player, no question about that. He's a nice guy too. He's got plenty of time."

Whereas Rose started at the age of five, Golding, a product of the Orange Hill school in Edgware, and a useful footballer with Barnet and a cricketer with Middlesex Colts, didn't take up golf until he was 17. He had no amateur career, becoming an assistant pro at a nine-hole course in Hertfordshire. He became an assistant at the South Herts club, where his mother and father play and to which he is still attached.

Apart from the moral support of his wife, Sally, a music publisher with EMI, Golding has two benefactors, Bill Morris, a businessman, and Gavyn Davies, an economist with Goldman Sachs, and an adviser to Tony Blair. "Gavyn plays a bit and we became friends," Golding said. "They bought shares in me and the idea is to repay a percentage of my winnings. Plus I give time for company days."

Shares in Golding are not, unfortunately, as profitable as shares in Goldman Sachs. "Trying to find a sponsor is hard work. If you're successful they want to know."

Players like Golding find themselves in a circle that is so vicious it could disappear into the Bermuda Triangle. When the season started he got a last-minute place in the Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand. "I played all right but putted horribly. You can play badly from tee to green and still score well. I played well from tee to green and scored badly. You begin to miss cuts, your confidence drains and you don't trust yourself. The last two years have been a disaster for me and I've been working more on the mental side of the game. Every week Montgomerie goes into a tournament thinking he can win it. I am going to the school with the attitude that I am the best player there. I've done it before."

Golding, who will travel with another tour pro Andy Clapp, also from Herts, leans on his coach, Scott Cransfield, and a sympathetic manager at the Midland. "He shows an interest and asks how I'm getting on. One look at my account will tell him." The figures would horrify Mr Micawber, not to mention Gavyn Davies: expenditure pounds 25,000, income pounds 6,400. The school trip alone is going to cost him about pounds 3,000: pounds 850 entry fee, pounds 1,200 for a caddie, pounds 600 flight and accommodation and living expenses on top of that.

"You've got to learn to lose before you can win," said the man who won the Middlesex Open at Hendon in 1985. "When you're hitting your head against a brick wall you wonder if this is a healthy occupation. Should I go back or not? Am I still enjoying it, am I good enough to win? I know I'm good enough."

As an insurance policy, Golding and his cousin Neil Fishenden will start a business next year called Goldfish, organising company golf days. "My field is golf," Golding said. "I love the game and I want to play as a tour professional. Players in their 40s tell me they regret giving it up too soon. In a few years time I don't want to say I didn't give it my best shot."

Nobody can say Golding hasn't given it his best shot. "I try not to think about losing my card. There's a year's work at stake. Sometimes the decision is made for you. Whatever happens we'll have a few beers. Life's too short."

FOUR FOR SPANISH INQUISITION

JUSTIN ROSE

Four months ago, a 17-year-old amateur came within two shots of winning the Open. In the end he tied for fourth, but the prize money of just under pounds 70,000 would have alone guaranteed his playing privileges. The following week, he turned professional, and 18, but the pressures since have smothered the inspired nonchalance of Birkdale. After missing the weekend by a single shot in each of his first two events, confidence drained and six more cuts were missed - the most recent in Australia last month. Two bright spots in this gloomy scenario were the final-round 67 at Chart Hills which secured his place this week and a three-year contract with Maxfli.

STEVEN RICHARDSON

In 1991, one budding British star clearly had the potential to win the European Order of Merit six years on the trot. But the name on pundits' lips was Steven Richardson, not Colin Montgomerie. As Montgomerie claimed fourth place that season, Richardson came second, made a fine Ryder Cup debut, won two tournaments and tied for fifth in the US PGA. But while Monty has gone from strength to strength, Richardson has been afflicted by a loss of form which was only partially stemmed by victory in the 1993 German Masters. After another poor season, the 32-year-old from Hampshire has dropped from Europe's top-40 career money list.

MAC O'GRADY

Just five months short of his 48th birthday, this eccentric American is returning to school. The magic age of 50 and a seniors career may be the motivation for a man who changed his name from Phil McGleno to Phillip McClelland O'Grady in 1978. He is no stranger to qualifying schools, having attended 17 of them in the United States. However, sceptics should not sneer because O'Grady won two US Tour titles in the mid-Eighties, and has US winnings of more than $1m. A Californian resident with a Japanese wife, O'Grady was a regular player in Europe 20 years ago. He has also earned a lucrative living as a coach, most notably to Seve Ballesteros.

PAUL WAY

If, pre-Rose, European golf ever had a gilded youth it was the feisty, diminutive Way. Already a Walker Cup player when he turned professional at 18, the Kent lad was Dutch Open champion a year later, and in 1983 played a starring role at the Ryder Cup in Florida. Seve Ballesteros took Way under his wing so effectively that he clocked up three and a half points in five matches, including a singles win over Curtis Strange. Further success followed, including a play-off victory over Sandy Lyle in the 1985 PGA Championship and three more points out of four in the Ryder Cup triumph at The Belfry (his singles victim was Ray Floyd). Then came a loss of form, initially blamed on the putter, so sudden that his victory, at 24, in the 1987 European Open was logged as a major comeback. Life since has spiralled downwards and at nearly 36 he is on his way back to school.

COMPILED BY PAUL TROW

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