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Golf: Purgatory for field of dreamers

It's a hard world for golf's underclass as they try to catch the gravy train. Tim Glover reports
In a week when Mark O'Meara suggested that players in the Ryder Cup should be paid, the dispossessed were attempting to buy a ticket on a tortuous journey that may or may not connect with the gravy train.

The most striking thing about professional golf is that, having got it, the haves have it all. While O'Meara was being paid a substantial sum just to appear in the Lancome Trophy near Versailles (how much French perfume is he going to help to shift in Iowa?) others were paying pounds 800 each to compete in pre- qualifying for the European Tour.

At Manchester, East Sussex National, Five Lakes in Essex and Wynyard Hall near Stockton on Tees, 556 players from 28 countries competed over three days, not for their Tour cards but simply to reach the next stage in purgatory, otherwise known as the qualifying school finals, in Spain, in November. Of the 556, the leading 46 go on to Spain where they will be joined by another 130, some from another series of pre-qualifiers, supplemented by the also-rans from the regular Tour and the Challenge Tour.

Apart from anything else, these events are a nice earner for the Tour. For a start, 556 x 800 = pounds 444,800. On top of the entry fee, the players, of course, have to pay for travel and accommodation. Perhaps it was not surprising that they helped themselves to a few practice balls.

At East Sussex, a swish American-designed course near Uckfield, a sign appeared on the window of the tournament office: "One-hundred dozen practice balls have been stolen from the driving range; please return them as the situation is now critical. Any players removing balls from the range will be liable to a large fine." Spectators couldn't have taken them because there weren't any spectators.

The event cost Martin Pettigrew more than pounds 2,000. An amateur from Wellington in New Zealand, he shot 70, 69, and 75 at East Sussex where 12 players from 145 survived. Pettigrew got the 12th place but only after enduring the added ordeal of a play-off. A couple of years ago, the Royal and Ancient relaxed the rules on amateurs, allowing them to go through the qualifying process without relinquishing their amateur status.

Having had a spell as a training officer in a tax department in Wellington, followed by the Kiwi's obligatory yearning to travel - he spent more than a year hitch-hiking around the world - Pettigrew, at 31, feels the time is right to embark on a career as a professional golfer.

"I may not be that young," he said, "but there are a lot of older players running around like 20-year-olds. The great thing about golf is that age is no barrier. England is where I want to be."

Pettigrew, whose mother comes from Nottingham (his father is from Edinburgh), has been supported by the New Zealand sports foundation and this season won his country's amateur stroke-play championship and the Singapore Amateur Championship.

Richard Coughlan, a 23-year-old red-haired Irishman who played in last month's Walker Cup, cannot wait to turn professional. Coughlan, from Birr, has already signed with a management company. He failed to qualify last week (a two-stroke penalty for practising his putting on the seventh green did not help) and this week he will have a tilt at the equivalent on the US Tour. Coughlan is based in South Carolina, where he's been on a college scholarship for five years. "Given the choice, I would prefer to play on the US Tour," he said. "I love it over there."

Rhys Atkinson's problem was in finding the greens. He scored 89, 76, 78. "The first round was horrendous and I felt like dying," he said. "After that I didn't want to get out of bed but you've just got to keep trying."

Atkinson is an assistant professional at Chartham Park, East Grinstead. Aged 23, he's been a pro for 11 months and only took up the game five years ago after breaking both ankles.

As a teenager he spent most of the time playing football in Sussex with Ian Pearce, now with Blackburn Rovers, and Nicky Forster (Birmingham). "But for injury I'd have become a footballer," Atkinson said. "Golf seemed to be the safest alternative." In the final round, his father, a Lingfield shopkeeper, caddied and his girlfriend follows his progress. "I needed all the support I could get," Atkinson said. "I needed to test myself and it was an invaluable experience. I'll enter again next year."

Most of those who failed this will enter the second series of pre-qualifiers next month. But not Atkinson. A couple of club members sponsored him last week and the money has run out. "I realise," Atkinson said, "that I've got to work on parts of my game that need it - which is pretty much everything." He keeps in touch with Pearce and Forster. "I can beat them at golf," he said. "Just about."