Golf: Last stop on the gravy train ride to 25m pounds: The European Tour Qualifying School - the toughest tournament in the world - where 40 out of 500 graduate

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AS SCHOOLS go this is not half as much fun as St Trinian's. It may be end of term time for the boys in clover but for the unfashionable professionals the European Tour Qualifying School is the last stop on the gravy train line. If you can make it here you can make it anywhere. That is the theory and it should work in practice.

This is the toughest tournament of the lot. At the end of six gut-churning rounds players discover whether they should pursue a career that could make them famously wealthy or whether they should melt down their clubs and concentrate on a proper job. The playboys will hardly ever accept the latter option.

'You never know,' they say. 'Every dog has his day. It's a funny old game.' You are made for life if you crack it; you are made of nothing if you crack under the pressure. The kindest thing your peers will say of you is that you are a bottler. It is all about figures.

Nearly 500 players attempted to get their cards; 183 got into the final qualifying and after another shake of the collander yesterday 91 have the privilege of playing the last two rounds today and tomorrow. The top 40 become card- carrying members of the 1994 Tour which is blessed with prize-money in the region of pounds 25m.

Not everybody down on their luck or their form goes to the school. Some simply rely on favours and hope that sponsors will hand out invitations; some are trying to get their cards on the Japanese tour (more lucrative, less competition) some in the United States (more lucrative still, more competition).

The transatlantic trickle can also work in reverse and at the end of the fourth round yesterday Brian Nelson, 27, from Tyler in Texas, was at the top of the teeming tip. Nelson has had one eye on the US Tour, the other on this.

In pre-qualifying for his home tour he shot 81 in the last round, thereby missing the bus, and, having already sailed through pre-qualifying in Europe, leapt on a plane and flew to the south of France. Nelson is in pole position after scoring 69 at La Grande Motte. He is at 13 under par and will try to defend that position on another course, Massane, in the final two rounds.

Nelson, who carried his own clubs, has a one-stroke lead over Steven Bottomley, a journeyman from Yorkshire. Bottomley, 28, from Bingley and born in Bradford, went to his building society last year and invested pounds 12,000 in a mobile home. He bought it from Steven Smith, son of the show jumper Harvey, and he drives it all over the Continent, competing on the Challenge Tour, the back-up programme to the main circus.

''The camper,' Bottomley said, 'saves me about pounds 300 a week.' It has got all the mod cons, micro wave, oven, fridge, tv, video, horse box. It has got 150,000 miles on the clock and Bottomley no longer eats out. With the backing of Maxfli he hands out thousands of golf balls to his fellow professionals.

This is Bottomley's seventh visit to the school after turning professional in 1987. He has not lost his sense of humour. 'I'd rather have a full bottle in front of me,' he said, 'than a full frontal lobotomy.' Unlike Nelson, Bottomley has employed a caddie here, Dominic Bott. Bottomley and Bott are sharing the mobile home this week with Mark Litton, a Welsh golfer. Litton was at five over par yesterday and the cut was made at four over. Unhappy camper and, because he is sharing with Bottomley, he cannot leave town.

'It gets difficult once you get your card,' Bottomley said. 'I've been there. The full tour is a licence to spend 30 grand. They're all good players. You've just got to keep going. I've never thought of packing it in. What else would I do?' The leading 10 players at the conclusion of the Challenge/ satellite Tour get their cards and are saved from having to go through the school of thought and deed.

Last year Bottomley finished 11th on the Challenge Tour and although he failed to get his card it was a relatively successful season. He won an event in Sweden, beating Nelson in a play-off. 'Nelson,' Bottomley said, 'is so laid- back he's nearly falling over.' When you speak to Nelson you can see what Bottomley means.

As the leading duo, Nelson is paired with Bottomley in the fifth round today. 'I'm looking forward to playing with Steve tomorrow,' Nelson drawled. He spent so much time over the sentence you wondered whether tomorrow would ever come.

PGA EUROPEAN TOUR QUALIFYING SCHOOL (Montpellier): Fourth-round leaders 275 B

Nelson (US) 67 70 69 69. 276 S Bottomley (Eng) 69 68 71 68. 279 L Westwood (Eng) 67 69 73 70; R Alvarez (Arg) 66 71 72 70; M Besanceney (Fra) 69 70 73 67. 280 J Hall (Eng) 68 73 68 71; C-M Stromberg (Swe) 66 73 73 68. 281 P Linhart (US) 68 72 73 68; S Hamill (N Ire) 69 71 68 73; M Scarpa (Italy) 67 70 70 74. 282 C Suneson (Eng) 70 70 70 72; M Poxon (Eng) 68 71 73 70; M Wills (Wales) 70 67 76 69; A Collison (Eng) 64 73 74 71; M Nichols (Eng) 71 70 71 70; C Williams (Eng) 70 73 70 69; R Berhorst (Ger) 72 71 71 68.