Hard school's qualified failures

The riches won by a few seem far off to the many scrambling for a place on the European Tour. Andy Farrell reports
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While it is the time of year for the game's elite to fill their Footjoys at such events as the Grand Slam and the Million Dollar Challenge, where last place still earns a six-figure sum, golf with excruciating tension and anxiety built in has been played elsewhere. At the PGA European Tour qualifying school, the joy is too hard won to be treated extravagantly and the grief can be overwhelming.

This year's six-round grindathon took place over two courses in southern Spain last week, contested by a field of 182 players, some of whom had gone through two pre-qualifiers to get there. Here were wannabes, the once-hads and the never-gonnabes, all after playing privileges for the 1997 Tour.

Some had been here before. Germany's Heinz-Peter Thul was playing for the 14th time since 1981. He won the event in 1989, but has only gained his card on two other occasions, of which this was not one. Those outside the top 40 who did not receive their cards included well-known names. Paul Way, the 1995 PGA champion, did not make the cut. His former Kent team-mate Mike McLean missed out, as did Gary Nicklaus and the big Scot Gordon Sherry.

What next? In most cases a session of letter writing. Each sponsor has its own special invitations for their tournaments but some will be more fortunate than others in being on the receiving end. The likes of Way and McLean still have a ranking, albeit lowly ones, which will get them into some of the smaller prize money tournaments. The Kiwi Michael Campbell, who missed his card by three places on the money list, believes he will be able to play enough next year so he saved himself the trauma of the Q School.

Finish in the top 10 of any tournament next year and you automatically get to play the following week. Sherry, whose invitations will be restricted as he has never held a player's card, not only has qualifications for the thriving Tartan Tour, but also for the Challenge Tour. A pan- European circuit, the expenses are the same but the prize money is about one tenth of that on the main tour - you have to perform consistently week after week to make money. Last year's winner, Thomas Bjorn of Denmark, proved himself the genuine article by winning the Loch Lomond World Invitational.

Bjorn did not get further than the pre-qualifying for the Q School after he turned professional and decided to avoid it after that. "People may not agree with me, but I don't think the qualifying school prepares you for the big time," Bjorn said. Ian Garbutt, who won the UAP Grand Final in Portugal to top this year's Challenge Tour Order of Merit, would.

In his first experience of the qualifying school in 1992, Garbutt, the former English amateur champion from Wheatley, in Doncaster, sailed through, but in three further attempts failed each time. "It is just one week of the year," he said. "If you are not playing well, you are in trouble."

Garbutt, a contemporary of Lee Westward and Jim Payne in the amateur game, birdied his first four holes on tour in 1993 but could not retain his card. The following year he tried to play on both the main tour and the junior circuit. "I was in no man's land. I won about pounds 12,000 on each tour and was getting nowhere on either ranking."

He decided to concentrate on the Challenge Tour and finished 15th, when only the top 10 received cards as opposed to the top 15 this year. Garbutt said: "In my first year on tour, I wasn't used to the travelling and playing four-round tournaments, putting together a four-round score. I have now had two years more experience of that. Overall, I'm a better player but I also think I'm a better person for the experience."

Talent such as Garbutt's and Sherry's may take a while to come through the system, but then it should be remembered that Tiger Woods is a one- off. There are now more places for aspiring pros to play than ever before. "Five years ago there was nowhere to go," said Randy Fox, a travel agent on the tour who set up the Futures Tour, where pros play for their own money, in 1991. The two-round events are being played at increasingly impressive courses such as Moor Park, Prince's and the Nick Faldo-designed Chart Hills. The circuit spawned a rival this year and the PGA will come in with a tier of three-round events next year.

"The idea was to start up a proving ground for tomorrow's stars and give older players who want to remain competitive but can't afford to travel a place to play," Fox said. "There is life after the Q School, but it is right that it is harder to get a card because otherwise we would complain there were too many turkeys out there."

Case study 1: David Williams

THE son of a speedway champion and an ice-skating gold medallist, Williams enjoyed his best year in 1990, when he reached a six-way play-off in the Atlantic Open and finished the season in 34th place on the Order of Merit with pounds 107,153. Two years later he lost his card, went back to the Qualifying School for the first time in 13 years where he missed his card by just one shot after covering the back nine in 40 shots on the last day, including a bogey at the final hole. "It is not the end of the world, it just feels like it," he said at the time. He played 22 events on his lowly ranking and invitations in 1993, just missing his card, but regained it a year later from 20 events. This year, Williams, 38, who is attached to Woburn, finished 139th on the money list and did not improve his ranking when he missed the cut at the school.

Case study 2: Philip Parkin

The British amateur champion in 1983 and a Walker Cup player, the Doncaster-born Welshman first earned his card by finishing 34th in the Open at St Andrews in 1984. That earned him the Rookie of the Year award and a glowing reputation. Despite earning - and then losing - his card on the US PGA tour and being divorced at 26, Parkin had his best year financially in Europe in 1989, earning pounds 68,479. But he had to go to the Qualifying School for the first time in 1991 and though he got through that year, he dropped to 176th in Europe in 1992 and missed the cut at the school. Treated this year by eye specialists in Dubai, Parkin, 34, teaches at a driving range near Shrewsbury and last week, while the rest were at the Q School, he was guesting as an analyser on Sky's coverage of the World Cup of Golf.

Case study 3: Andrew Coltart

A member of the 1991 Walker Cup team with Jim Payne, Paul McGinley and Gary Evans, Coltart turned pro but failed at the first pre-qualifier for the school and caught chickenpox at the second in Spain. Not qualified to play even on the Challenge or Tartan tours, Coltart went to play on the Swedish tour, staying with a friend until he could pay his own way.He finished sixth in the Order of Merit, went to the Q School again and won his full card for 1993. He had to go back to the school at the end of the year, but has since finished 42nd, 28th and seventh (this year) on the money list. Won the 1994 Australian PGA and has represented Scotland with distinction in the Alfred Dunhill and World Cups. Has said: "There isn't really a support system or a training ground for young pros to learn to put together four rounds of golf."

Case study 4: Warren Bennett

The British youths' champion in 1992 and an England international, Bennett, from Ruislip, represented Great Britain and Ireland in the Eisenhower Trophy, and finished an impressive amateur career by winning the silver medal at the open at Turnberry in 1994 as the only non-pro to make the cut. Signed by the International Management Group on turning professional, Bennett went to the 1994 Q School but missed out on a play-off for 40th place by four shots. Spent the 1995 season on the Challenge Tour, where he was 13th on the Order of Merit and won the Dutch Challenge Open. Returning to the school, he missed the cut and struggled this year on the Challenge Tour before finally earning his playing rights on the main tour at the age of 25 at the third attempt by taking the seventh card on offer last week.