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Six of the best - Ireland's hopefuls braced for Q-School exams

The wailing wall. The scoreboard at the European Tour Qualifying School Final Stage tells the harsh truth.Philip Walton compared it to a prison sentence and there’s no time off for good behaviour. If it goes well, you have six rounds - 108 holes of golf - to finish in the top 25 and ties and earn a ticket to the 2013 Race to Dubai.

What happens next is another story - the lack of starts, the long distance travelling, the expense, the body count - but that doesn’t matter right now. For the 156 men who will tee it up at the stunning PGA Catalunya Resort in Girona today, the first objective is to make the 72 hole cut on Tuesday night. Before that, each will play two round on the tough Stadium and slightly easier and shorter Tour Course at the tree-line venue around 70 minutes north of Barcelona, just outside Girona.

Ireland will have six men in the field - the Irish No 1 and IRish PGA champion, Waterville’s David Higgins; Lurgan’s Gareth Shaw, winner of the Alps Tour Order of Merit this year; Ballymena’s Chris Devlin, a former team mate of Graeme McDowell who lives in Florida; Royal Dublin’s Niall Kearney, a Walker Cup player in 2009 and a man who lost nearly a year of his career to a shoulder injury; Royal County Down’s Simon Thornton, who lost his card for the second time in three years this season; and Douglas’ Peter O’Keeffe, the 6’ 5” gentle giant, now a PGA apprentice at Muskerry, who was ninth alternate but got in at the 11th hour after a spate of withdrawals.

Each has a story to tell, as do the other 150 men in the field. It’s a field replete with winners - no fewer than 33 have won on the European Tour. Three of them - Ollie Wilson, Paul Broadhurst and Jarmo Sandelin, have played in the Ryder Cup. Stephen Dodd won the Irish Open and the World Cup of Golf with Bradley Dredge (an Irish Open runner up) who is also in Catalonia this week.

Other big names include Kenneth Ferrie, who led the US Open with a round to play at Winged Foot in 2006 but finished sixth, three strokes behind Geoff Ogilvy. He also won the European Open at the K Club.

All will be trying to do what Branden Grace did last year - earn their cards and go on to win four times on the European Tour. It’s a pipe dream for many but they’re back for more punishment in many cases. Here’s the story of the six Irishmen in action - just a rough sketch but enough to give you an idea of what may be going through their minds as you follow the scores.  Leaderboard

Gareth ShawGareth Shaw

Age 27

Twitter: @gshawgolf

Appearances at final stage: Debut

Alps Tour 2012 - Winner of Order of Merit

“It’s my first time at the final stage. I knew I was right on the number on the last day and I was surprised how good the scoring was because I shot 70 and played well. There were 5 for four spots and I got through on the third extra hole.

“It was a good year, winning the Order of Merit on the Alps Tour though I would have loved to win a tournament. Winning the Order of Merit wasn’t really a goal at the start of the year but I made it my goal at the end of the season and I am delighted I have something for next year now with Category 10 on the Challenge Tour at the very least.

“But I do feel like I can skip a level. I’d have said no chance of that last year but I feel I have done a lot of good things this year. The objective is to make the cut and have full status on the Challenge Tour next year because it’s all about being able to plan your schedule and pick your events, which is very important.

“I’ve been a pro for four years and statistically putting is the major factor. I added Fergie Wallace as a performance coach and he’s made the biggest difference. Statistically my putting has improved a lot and I’ve taken nearly a shot and a half off my average. It’s 29.5 per round. I’ve made tons of bridies and led the Alps Tour for birdies this year. Graham Leslie from Golf Data Lab has also been a great help

Simon ThorntonSimon Thornton

Age 35

Appearances at Final Stage: Fourth (08, 09*, 10, ‘12) *won card.

Race to Dubai 161st €88,599

18 events - cuts made 8 - (Best finish  T11 St Omer Open)

“The year hasn’t been great to be honest. It’s been a bit of a struggle. Our little boy, Ryan (1), was sick and we we only just found out three weeks ago it was pneumonia. I wouldn’t use it as an excuse but it sort of played on my mind. I played 16 events and could have played more events, maybe 18 or 19, but the calls telling me I was in the event were coming late.

“I didn’t play great this year to be brutally honest but I started to get it back over the last month or so and had a lift. I’ve just had more focus in practice and while I didn’t play great at Second Stage I still had a 66 in the third round, which was probably the best I played all year.

“I’m definitely not holing as many putts. It’s just generally confidence. I haven’t made any mad changes in my game and still work with Kevan Whitson at Royal County Down, as I have since the year dot. The whole game is about confidence. One week you can’t miss a fairway, the next you can’t hit a fairway. It’s about trying to get your mind as right as you can every week.

“My forte would be hitting fairways and greens but when you are hitting it to 20 feet all day, you are going to hole only three or four of those putts at best.

“I’ll have a category on the Challenge Tour no matter what happens this week but I like PGA Catalunya and know the courses well and I have a bit more experience now and know what to expect having played on the European Tour.

“You are going to make birdies so it is about limiting your mistakes, taking your punishment and making sure you remember it is six rounds rather than thinking about whether you are one under or three under. It’s a longer marathon than you will ever play but you don’t want to play it too often.

“I dont’ get to high or too down and tend to make the right decisions course management wise, which is what you need to do over six rounds.

“I’m definitely thinking I can win the Q-School, especially the way I played in that third round in Stage Two. I’m not far off playing like that quite regularly. It’s all about pacing yourself, taking your punishment and eliminating the mistakes.

“I occasionally work with Neil Manchip on the mental game. I have the same faults. I get frustrated with the whole game. I don’t want to be there. I don’t want to play the game. I don’t like it. I want to be at home with the little boy. You go out and shoot 71 and think it should have been 68 and then next time it’s a 73 that should have been a 69. Neil helps me work on my focus and concentrate on my target and where I want to go. I find it easy, unfortunately to lose that focus.

“Do you have to be selfish? Yeah, you do. Nick Faldo was probably the best example. He said he was so focussed and so selfish he probably became not a nice guy.

Chris DevlinChris Devlin

Twitter: @chrisdevlingolf

Age 37

Appearance at Finals - Second (2011 MC, 2012)

Events 2012 - 2 European Tour, 1 Challenge Tour, National Pro Tour (mini tour in US, cancelled last five events)

Cuts made 1 (Challenge Tour ALLIANZ Open Côtes d’Armor Bretagne 58th)

“I’m really looking forward to it. I had a tough time last year with my neck and I’ve worked hard for it. I can’t wait to get started. The season never really ends now so I want to get through this week and keep on going.

“I thought I would get more starts on the Challenge Tour but ended up getting just one. When you do get a start you really have to take advantage of it. What hurts us is that we don’t have a Challenge Tour event in Ireland because the invites are handed out on a reciprocal basis between the countries that host the events.

“I’ve just looking forward to taking on those courses again. It took eight under last year and my back and neck were hurting so bad I couldn’t swing it right. I know it is a pressure situation but those courses are not that hard and it is just a question of playing well and trying to focus on my own game.  I have to make sure I do myself justice.

“I have got Graeme McDowell’s old caddie caddying for me right through this Q-School, Craig Gordon. He caddied for me in the first two stages and it’s made a big difference. You have to be professional about it.

“I’m absolutely a better player than 12 months ago. My schedule really killed me this year. I was trying to come back and forward but things like getting into the Irish Open so so late when I was to play in other tournaments was a problem. Being at the US Open as an alternate all week meant I missed two tournaments and I missed two tournaments because I was at the Irish Open all week.

“In the end the National Pro Tour I was playing in the US cancelled their last five events. So my schedule for his whole year went to pot, not being able to get into Challenge Tour events really really hurt because I wasn’t making enough money because I wasn’t getting into enough tournaments.

“I have just been gearing up getting ready for this q-school. It is so difficult when you can’t set a schedule for yourself and you can’t get in here or there. Not only does it make it much more expensive booking things at the last minute but knowing where you are going and being able to tell your wife where you are going to be on this date or that date makes a big difference.

“The biggest help for me this year has been the Team Ireland golf trust. It’s been fantastic because without their help I probably wouldn’t have even had this opportunity. I owe them a bunch. I hope they can keep it going because Irish golf has been so successful over the last few years. It’s been massive for me because I probably would have even tried it again if I hadn’t had their help. Just to have that financial help so you don’t run up a bunch of credit card debt to play here takes the pressure off me. 

“Last year my neck and back didn’t allow me to hit the ball far enough to do myself justice and that really hurt. It was tough to take. But the good thing is that I have a lot more experience on those two golf courses and hopefully that will kick in this year.

David HigginsDavid Higgins

Age 39

European Tour 2012 - 3 appearances. Cuts made 2. Best finish: T10 BMW PGA (€78,300)

Challenge Tour 2012 - 1 appearance. Cuts made 0.

Irish Region - OOM 1st. 24 appearances. Wins 9 including 102nd Irish PGA Championship. Earnings €22,239

“I’m in a good frame of mind going down there. It’s been a good year and I took advantage of the chances I got though missing the cut in the Irish Open was disappointing.

“I am 40 this year so I don’t have too many years to compete at the highest level. But it’s 10 years to the Seniors Tour and that’s a long way away. I took a step back from the tour a few years ago and went to play in the Irish Region and you just miss it. I want to get back out there. I had a chance at Wentworth this year and showed I can still compete if I play well and that got me hungry and I’ve continued to play well.

“It’s my goal to get back on the tour. That’s what I want to do. If I don’t it is not the end of the world, I can still survive whereas in other years it was the opposite and I was putting too much pressure on myself. I have to do it, I have to do it. But I don’t have to do it. I just have to play my game and I will be fine.

“Life is too short. When I was in my mid-30s golf was everything and I didn’t see anything else. Now it’s not the be all and end all if I don’t get through because I know I will make a living playing golf. But I am playing well.

“It would be a nice birthday present (next Saturday) if I get my card but it won’t be the end of the world if I don’t. I missed the cut by a shot a year ago but that’s a year ago. Mentally and physically I am thinking differently and playing differently now. I am a long way away from that point.

“I did a lot of work before Wentworth this eyar and did a week long course on the mental side of my game. I am just more chilled out about the whole thing, not that I am not working as hard on my game. I am, of course. You have to do that. But I have a different approach and feel a lot more confident in my game and in myself.

“Where I finished in Wentworth wasn’t the big thing for me. It was coming away from there thinking, gee, that wasn’t even my best golf. I thought of what could have been and said to myself, ‘This is what you are capable of doing.’ If you were to play your best golf, who knows what could have happened. That was the biggest thing for me walking away from that.

I’ve been out there before, I feel as fit as I ever have been. It’s about being able to handle pressure situations and learning to deal with them. That’s as important as being able to hit the ball 350 yards.

The Challenge Tour? It’s not a road I am thinking of going down. I’ve played on the Challenge Tour for a long, long time. It’s either the main tour or continue to do what I have been doing. I have the PGA Play-offs in Turkey after Q-School and that gives me a chance to play in Wentworth, the Irish Open, the Scottish Open and Celtic Manor if I finish in the top-two. There are always those little carrots.

Niall KearneyNiall Kearney

Age 24

Appearances at finals - Third (2009, 2010, 2012)

Challenge Tour 2012 - 142nd with  €4,909

CT 2012 Starts 6, Cuts made 2. Best T11 Fred Olsen Challenge de España

“It was a strange year. I expected to play more on Challenge Tour but didn’t get that many opportunities to play. Just six plus the Irish Open. But I played a little on the Irish Region circuit and that was very enjoyable. I’ve had more time at home that I have had in the last few years but it means I’ve had time to work on my game so it has been of benefit really. I played okay at the first and second stage, no fireworks, and I’m looking forward to getting back to Catalunya.

“I had a full Challenge Tour card for a couple of years and didn’t make use of it. With my category this year I was getting a call on a Tuesday and that makes it expensive as well with last minute travel. Having been to Q-School before I’d like to conserve a bit more energy early in the week. I can see myself just playing nine holes of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday rather than 18 and managing my time a bit better.

“Putting? Yes, every tournament comes down to putting but you have to hit it well off the tee there, put yourself in position and give yourself chances. On the Stadium Course you have to put yourself in position, it’s a hugely demanding course.

“I’d like to say I’ve enjoyed it [being a pro] but it has been very up and down with the injury early on and  having to take a year out. There have been more lows than highs but I am still positive and practicisng as hard. I still have as much desire to get where I want to go. I am still serving my apprenticeship but I’d like to think it is all slowly coming around.

“Team Ireland is hugely supportive and €15,000 was a big help. That’s been a godsend over the last few years. I’ve also got Gordon Faulkner on the bag, who caddied for Rory when he came out on tour. That helped a lot at Stage Two and should be a big help in the final stage.

Peter O’Keeffe (left) caddying for Mark Murphy in the Irish Open. This week the roles will be reversed. Picture by Jenny Matthews/www.golffile.iePeter O’Keeffe

Twitter:

Age 31

Appearances at finals 1 (2007 MC)

Irish Region - 22nd on the Order of Merit (26 events, 1 win for €9,163)

“I was ninth alternate having lost out in a four play play-off for the final qualifying spot iat Second Stage having played a lot better than I scored. But I got the call when Niklas Lemke opted for PGA Tour Q-School. It’s great to be going back.

“I was at Q-School finals [at San Roque] in 2007 and I didn’t feel I was ready then but hopefully I’m ready now. I’m a much better player. I’ve played a lot this year and doing my PGA Training [he’s just completed the first of three years at Muskerry] has been superb for me and got me back playing more regularly.

“It has really turned my game around and so I am delighted with that. It got me through the Q-School so hopefully it will continue. The goal is to make the cut and then play well the last two rounds. I missed the cut fairly convincingly the last time but I know better this time around what Q-School is about and I’ll be more prepared for it.

“I’d love to get back on the Challenge Tour because I feel I should be playing the bigger tournaments. And with (Mark Murphy) Murph on the bag I’ll have plenty of support. He’s repaying the favour for the Irish Open because I caddied at Portrush.”