GIVE TALENT the chance to perform without pressure and even on the greatest stage wonderful things can happen. Justin Rose showed exactly that at the Open. To finish fourth, the highest placing by an amateur for 45 years, was a brilliant achievement. Now for something completely different.
This morning, at the Nick Faldo-designed Chart Hills course near Biddenden in Kent, Rose starts the gruelling marathon that is the Qualifying School. This is one of sport's hardest schools. Around 600 players have entered, only 35 will get their tour cards giving them the right to play on the European tour next season.
It could take anything up to 12 rounds to achieve. The first stage, known as PQ1, takes place this week at five venues around the country. At each site 120 players will compete over 54 holes for around 10 spots into the finals in southern Spain in November.
Those that fail will go on to PQ2 in Spain in October for another three rounds. The finals themselves are played out over six rounds. Among the 180 players who tee off will be experienced pros who have failed to retain their cards from the main tour, those who make an annual pilgrimage but return to the mini-tours and regional PGA events, as well as those just starting out on their professional careers.
The 72-hole cut, which slices the field down to around 70, must be made or nothing has been gained but a few mental scars. For those that remain but fail to get into the top-35, there is the consolation of a place on the Challenge Tour, where you can gain experience if not money.
Those at the top of the game, the ones battling out the great championships, still refer back to the `Q' School and the early days on tour trying to make a cut - those who do not qualify after 36 holes do not receive a cheque - as the most pressure-filled times of their careers.
Rose has had a swift introduction. In his six tournaments as a professional, he has not yet played four full rounds. He has found out that when making the cut becomes your target, it is one that suddenly becomes elusive. Co-incidentally Raymond Russell, the Scottish professional who also tied for fourth place at Birkdale, has yet to make a cut since either.
This was not the case when Rose finished 44th at the Benson and Hedges International in May. He would also have sailed past the cut at the European Grand Prix in June had the tournament not been washed out by rain. Those performances had planted the seed in Rose and his family's minds of turning pro should he make the cut at the Open.
That Birkdale turned into so much more made the decision inevitable. It is hard to believe that it was a performance Rose will never repeat again, but his one advantage over many of the pros was his amateur experience of playing tough links courses in strong winds. For a start, the publicity assured Rose of gaining the maximum of seven allowed invitations on the tour. Should he have earned around pounds 50,000 and finished in the top 116 on the order of merit, there would have been no need of going to the Qualifying School.
Although he has one more invitation left, it looks like the easier route has been closed. "I always knew I had two chances," Rose said. "I knew it would be difficult to win the amount of money I needed from seven tournaments. In 20 years hopefully I'll look back and nobody will be able to say I didn't do it the hard way."
Now, though, it is crunch time. "This is more important than anything I have played so far," he said of PQ1. He has visited Chart Hills twice to familiarise himself with the venue. "It is a good test of golf but a fair test and that is all you can ask of a qualifying course."
Inevitably, Rose's confidence has taken a hit but he remains positive. "However disappointed you feel inside, you cannot show it on the outside," he said. "There are always positives, you just have to look hard enough for them. I am a stronger player than I was at the Open. You become a better player by going through the lows. It is difficult to put your finger on why I haven't played well. I don't feel any different. I may be a professional but I am the same golfer."
Mentally, Rose admits to wandering a bit on the course and his driving has the same tendency. His percentage of fairways hit is too low. That does not mean he is in the trees all day. On a course like the Forest of Arden, where the straight-hitting Colin Montgomerie won for the second time on Sunday, the fairways are narrow and to stray just a few feet off them is to find thick rough.
Did Rose, who turned 18 two weeks after the Open, leave the amateur ranks too young? In America, he would have gone to college on a scholarship for three or four years. Matt Kuchar, who starred at the US Masters and the US Open, thought about turning pro but then decided to finish his last two years at university. Sergio Garcia, the 18-year-old British Amateur champion who finished joint 12th in the British Masters, will stay amateur until next April's US Masters.
Rose, the youngest to play in the Walker Cup at 17 last year, clearly felt he had learnt enough. Peter McEvoy, the England captain who almost picked Rose for full international honours at the age of 14, felt he was too young, not just to play golf but to be a doctor or a policeman. The longevity of a golfing career is similar to non-sporting professions, and there is an apprenticeship to learn.
A year on the Challenge Tour, where only a handful do more than cover their costs in racing around Europe for low prize fund tournaments, would be no bad thing. While disliked by British players who find it harder to get sponsorship than continentals, with the right backing the experience can be a rewarding one in terms of preparation for life on the main tour.
But to get on to the Challenge Tour is hard enough and those who don't get that far are left in the wilderness of mini-tours, where the players' entry fees provide the prize fund.
Golfing lore suggests that if you're good enough you'll make it ecventually. It took Barry Lane, the Ryder Cup player, seven visits to the Qualifying School before establishing himself on tour. Others, like Jose Maria Olazabal and Lee Westwood, passed first time and never returned.
Wherever Rose ends up playing next year, he should have backing. Carnegie, his management company, report interest in the South African-born, Hampshire- raised player has not diminished despite the start to his pro career. The current asking prize for a club contract is pounds 1.5m. Rose has tried not to get involved. "All that matters is what I do on the golf course," he said. "If you do well, everything else takes care of itself."
PRO AND CONS
In his six events as a professional, Justin Rose has missed the cut each time:
77 65 missed by 1 Scandinavian Masters
71 75 missed by 1
76 75 missed by 2
70 79 missed by 7
70 77 missed by 7
80 70 missed by 5
FOUR AMATEURS WHO STRUGGLED TO MAKE THE GRADE
British Amateur champion in 1995 when he also starred in GB & Ireland's Walker Cup victory over the Americans and finished joint fourth in the Scottish Open at Carnoustie. Turned pro after the US Masters in '96 but suffered from glandular fever and could not make his card from invitations. Finished 62nd and 84th in the Qualifying School in the last two years. Now playing the Challenge Tour.
Member of the 1991 Walker Cup team and then turned pro but was ill during the first stage of the Qualifying School. Spent a year playing on Swedish Tour, got his card at the Q school but had to return in '93. Has since kept his card, played for Scotland in the World and Dunhill Cups and won his maiden title, the Qatar Masters in March.
Leading amateur at the Open in 1994 when hailed, like Rose, by the R and A secretary, Sir Michael Bonallack. Got through the Qualifying School at third attempt in 1996 but then suffered neck injuries last year. Fit again, the 25-year-old from Watford has won five times on the Challenge Tour this season to secure his card on the main circuit for next year.
Turned pro in 1992 with a handicap of plus-two, two years after winning the English Amateur Championship. Won his card at the Qualifying School for '93 but finished 139th on the order of merit with pounds 26,715 to lose it again. After three failed attempts at the Q School, the Doncaster man won the Challenge Tour order of merit last year after winning the UAP Grand Final.