Golf: Students achieve lift-off at Apollo Week

Andy Farrell reports from Valderrama on a golf education for life on tour
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The Independent Online
As an introduction to life on the European Tour, the Apollo Week Training School is unrepresentative in one regard. It is an all-expenses- paid trip and that will not happen again to the 27 graduates of the Challenge Tour and the Qualifying School until they make the Ryder Cup team or become such a superstar that they do not get out of bed without the lure of substantial appearance money.

The first-class treatment has included staying at San Roque, where both the European and American teams will stay when the Ryder Cup is played at neighbouring Valderrama in September. Given the incessant rain on the Costa del Sol, the only major expense has been that incurred at the bar.

Dedicated practice range ball-beaters the class of '97 may be, but they still enjoy a drink. This is not like the old days, though. "There are not as many guys still at the bar at midnight," Joe Higgins said. At 37, Higgins is almost old enough to be a father to some of the younger tour newcomers.

In less than grand days, Higgins travelled the tour in a caravan with the likes of Ian Woosnam. His most financially successful year was 1989, when he won pounds 19,972, but it was also the year he lost his tour card for good. A chance meeting with tour player David Williams rekindled his enthusiasm for the tournament scene and a high placing on the PGA national order of merit meant he was exempt for the Qualifying School. He overcame that hurdle but has not given up the day job of being the pro at Patshull Park.

"The tour has changed beyond belief in the last eight years. Different tour, different world," Higgins said. "Everyone is more dedicated, fitter and they practice more. I realise I need to improve. I have regrets about wasting my talent in the past. I couldn't stay away from the bar. There is so much time to kill. I always said I'll just have one and then stayed on."

The Apollo Week has been an eye-opener for Higgins. "Even if you have been a pro for a long time, and I have been one for 21 years, you have missed out if you have not been here," Higgins said. There is the chance to work with top coaches John Jacobs, Tommy Horton, Denis Pugh and putting specialist Harold Swash as well as consult psychologists, physiotherapists and fitness experts. "The good thing is you can do as much or as little as you want. You can listen to too many people," Higgins said.

Carl Watts, a 25-year-old from Shropshire, brought his coach along too. "He is helping me to pick out the right things for my game," said Watts, an organised young man who has kept a daily diary for future reference.

While others complain they have found it difficult getting sponsors - apart from Kalle Vainola who had 12 companies chasing the only Finn with a tour card - Watts has a detailed portfolio to show potential backers.

"I'm hoping to raise pounds 15,000 to get me going by staging a golf day and inviting local businessmen along," said Watts, who spent pounds 26,000 in winning pounds 28,000 on the Challenge Tour last season. The investment has paid off because he is now where he always wanted to be. Someone else who knows where he is going is Anthony Wall. His father is a London cabbie who is both Wall's caddie and coach.

"Dad has been teaching me since I was four," said the 21-year-old from Sunningdale. "We talked a lot about whether he should come out on tour with me but I think it is the right thing to do. If I'm doing badly, it will be nice to have a friendly face around.

"This is what we have worked hard to achieve for the last 10 years. He has given up a lot. He always said he would caddie for me in my first year on tour."

Wall is a former winner of the Sunningdale Foursomes, when his partner was Steve Webster, whose father makes the cabs that Wall's dad drives. Webster was the star pupil a year ago. The leading amateur at the 1995 Open, he topped the Qualifying School and then won the Apollo Challenge. The success was short-lived and he missed the cut in his first nine tournaments. Webster had to renew his card at the School and on Tuesday retained his Apollo title in wretched conditions at Valderrama, shooting a two-under-par 69 to win by three.

"I have always been a very positive player, but I lost confidence last year" he said. "You have to pace yourself on tour; playing nine events in a row is too many. You can get lost on tour playing with your idols each week. The year before I was playing only county golf. I have had a year's experience and maybe it was a good thing to miss my card. I am more positive this year."

n Ian Baker-Finch made a miserable return with a five-over-par 77 in the first round of the Victorian Open in Melbourne yesterday. Baker-Finch, who took six months away from tournament play after a succession of poor results in recent years, is 13 shots behind the leader, Stephen Leaney.