Higgins back where he belongs

David Higgins and caddie David Rankin walk to the recorder’s area following Thursday’s final round of the European Tour Qualifying School Final Stage at PGA Catalunya Resort’s Stadium Course. Higgins won the 14th of 28 cards awarded.For most it’s a human mincing machine, a graveyard for dreams that leads to nothing more than the drowning of sorrows in golf’s ultimate Last Chance Saloon.

Not for David Higgins. Not this time.

Just over a week before he celebrates his 40th birthday and 17 years after he came through the European Tour Qualifying School for the first time, the soft-spoken Waterville man seized his destiny with both hands to earn himself the biggest mulligan of his life.

A closing, two under par 70 in the six-round test at PGA Catalunya Resort gave the reigning Irish PGA champion the 14th of 28 cards on seven under par and the opportunity to finally live up to the potential he showed when beating Pádraig Harrington in the final of not one but two major Irish amateur championships in 1994.

“Delighted,” Higgins beamed after completing what he described as the “most important round of my career.”

His story is true life triumph over adversity but it took some deep soul-searching following a mental game seminar earlier this year, followed by a 10th place finish in the tour’s flagship BMW PGA at Wentworth, to convince him to give the Tour one last go.

Having won back his card through the Challenge Tour in 2005, he lost it in 2006 and was struck down by a mystery liver illness the following year. Unbelievably, he failed to secure a medical exemption from the and reluctantly returned to the Challenge Tour in 2008 at the age of 35.

A few months into the season he looked around at the young guns near him on the chipping green at a minor event in Denmark and thought: “What the hell am I doing here?”

He returned to Ireland to reassess, recharge and play the pro-am circuit. But while he dominated the Irish Region, winning the money list several times and following in his father Liam’s footsteps by claiming the Irish Professional Championship this year, the call of the Tour remained strong.

He still had to take care of some unfinished business.

“My attitude has not been good playing for the last few years in the Irish Region,” Higgins explained yesterday after a hugely impressive final round. “I knew I was better than that.

“I’m not saying [that playing] the Region is a disaster, but I always knew in my own mind that I wasn’t achieving what I was capable of achieving.

“Maybe I needed someone to say it to me or to figure it out myself and going to a seminar on the mental game this year just drove me on and I finished 10th in the BMW PGA at Wentworth.

“I’m 40 next Saturday and I couldn’t see myself lasting another 10 years on the Irish Region just waiting for the Seniors Tour. So it was a case of saying, ‘Are we doing this or not?’

“I’ve had tough times, yes. I had some form of liver disease for a while that cost me most of a year. But you can’t be making excuses. I have had plenty of opportunities over the last 17 years.

“I took a few, not too many, but you can’t be living in the past. We have to move forward now and it’s exciting and I am delighted. And I am delighted for all the well-wishers as well.

“You wouldn’t think that many people are interested or following you but it is incredible the amount of messages and texts I have received. It’s great to do it for them.”

With the top 25 and ties earnings cards after six rounds, Higgins went into the final day sitting in the hotseat, tied for 22nd place on five under par. He knew he needed a sub-par round on the tough Stadium Course to make it through and produced a brilliant all round display.

Twelve month earlier he had bogeyed the last hole to miss the 72 hole cut by one. This time he cruised into the last two rounds but felt disappointed to shoot only a level par 72 in the fifth round which left him tied for 22nd on five under in the race to finish in the top 25 and ties. He needed a “solid round”, “one or under under” to make

After the wake-up call of a bogey at the first where he ted up the ball too high, dismissed it and then saw his ball nosedive left after a high contact with the driver.

Not nerves down the first. I teed it up too high and I said it will be fine. Just whack it out the right. And sure enough I caught it more off the top of the club and it just dipped on me. That’s what happens if you hit it off the top. I was laughing going down the hill, thinking: ‘This is the most important round of your career’. I was probably too relaxed on that shot. It wasn’t long waking me up, making a bogey there. It might have been a good thing. My best round ever was a 61 in Ireland and I bogeyed the first, not that I was thinking of that.

He birdied the third with a pitch to four feet, holed a 30 footer for birdie at the fourth and followed a bogey at the short fifth, where he was bunkered, with a seven iron to three feet setting up a birdie at the sixth.

A missed birdie chance from eight feet at the par-three eighth momentarily fazed him and he hit a bad drive at the ninth, bogeying there to turn in five under par, just inside the top 25.

“It was in my head and I just hit a bad tee shot. My brother would kill me. He always pushes me to ract well to bad shots. It was a bad tee shot. I was thinking of the putt.”

Needing a sub-par back nine to win his card, he birdied the par-five 12th with a wedge to nine feet, the 13th from 20 feet and the par-five 15th from six feet after another canny lay-up.

He was virtually home and dry, two shots inside the projected cut off with three to play but he refused to let up.

“Just hit it hard is what I am thinking,” Higgins said. “Hit every shot full out. Just commit and go at it. And I did that on the par-three 16th. Lovely five iron, 215 yards, two putts.”

He had to hole from six feet for par at the 17th to remain at eight under and while he bunkered his 220 yard approach to the 18th, dropping a shot there to slip to seven under, he was a shot inside the cut mark.

“Words can’t describe how tight you feel coming down the last few holes there,” Higgins said. “It just twists you inside. You only get one go at it and if you mess it up, that’s it.

“The young Korean playing with me [An]. He was out of it and he got himself back in it with a few birdies and then he finishes with two bogeys from nowhere. He hit two good drives. It just twists you inside. You can’t describe how difficult it is. You only get one go at it and if you mess it up, that’s it. He messed up. That’s it. It’s all over.

Three-putts by Gary Orr on the 18th meant Higgins had made it two to spare. The Scot’s error also allowed all those at five under par, including himself, to make it as he became the oldest player to win his Tour card at the School at the age of 45 - 20 years after he had won it at School for the first time. In contrast, playing partner and compatriot George Murray three-putted for a double bogey six, horseshoeing out from less than three feet to miss out by a stroke. David Griffifth was the other unlucky one as he carded 17 pars and a birdie in a 71 to finish alongside the hapless Murray on four under.

England’s John Parry won the 2012 European Tour Qualifying School final stage in style.The top card went to England’s John Parry, who closed with a 70 to win by four from Swede Mikael Lundberg on 19 under while German Amateur Moritz Lampert qualified comfortably in joint fourth.

Higgins knows that he must now take advantage of his second chance, which could give him 20 starts on tour next year - maybe more if he wins next weekend’s PGA play-offs in Turkey.

“If I can win that it will get me in the BMW PGA at Wentworth again, Celtic Manor and Scottish Open,” he said. “I could go to the events in South Africa next month but I don’t know what I’ll do yet. It’s a nice problem to have.”

Winning an event is still his No 1 goal and he see no reason why he can’t make that dream come true having finally made it back into the big time.

He said: “It’s where I feel I belong. Put me on the right course in the right conditions and I feel I can win tournaments. I’m not just saying that.

“I won on the Challenge Tour but that was a long time ago. I am a better player now. Stronger mentally. Put me on the right course and I can do really well.”

European Tour Qualifying School Final Stage

PGA Catalunya Resort Girona

Final

409 J Parry (Eng) 71 71 64 67 66 70;

413 M Lundberg (Swe) 68 68 65 73 70 69;

415 A Sullivan (Eng) 71 67 65 69 72 71;

417 E Goya (Arg) 64 71 64 73 76 69; P Erofejeff (Fin) 72 67 66 73 69 70; M Lampert (am) (Ger) 70 67 65 71 70 74;

418 D Gaunt (Aus) 74 68 68 69 69 70; M Southgate (Eng) 72 70 65 68 68 75;

419 E De La Riva (Esp) 70 70 65 73 70 71; R McEvoy (Eng) 67 72 64 70 73 73; M Nixon (Eng) 68 72 67 68 70 74; A Snobeck (Fra) 69 67 68 69 72 74; M Korhonen (Fin) 74 62 66 71 70 76;

420 M Delpodio (Ita) 67 69 65 79 69 71; B Åkesson (Swe) 70 72 66 67 70 75;

421 C Lloyd (Eng) 73 69 68 75 69 67; M Jonzon (Swe) 74 69 66 70 73 69; David Higgins (Ireland) 73 64 68 74 72 70; M Madsen (Den) 78 66 64 70 70 73;

422 C Macaulay (Sco) 71 71 66 74 69 71; S Little (Eng) 70 68 67 77 69 71; O Floren (Swe) 71 66 70 72 71 72; J Lagergren (Swe) 71 66 67 70 74 74;

423 A Levy (Fra) 68 72 71 67 75 70; L Jensen (Den) 70 74 65 74 69 71; S Arnold (Aus) 67 73 67 72 73 71; C Del Moral (Esp) 70 71 68 72 70 72; G Orr (Sco) 67 69 68 74 72 73;

(Non-qualifiers)

424 D Griffiths (Eng) 67 72 70 75 69 71; G Murray (Sco) 66 71 70 71 72 74;

425 J Barnes (Eng) 77 69 74 65 72 68; T Fisher Jnr (RSA) 69 71 71 74 70 70; S Benson (Eng) 75 70 67 70 72 71; O Wilson (Eng) 75 68 72 70 68 72; P Hedblom (Swe) 70 69 66 76 72 72; J Timmis (Eng) 74 69 66 77 66 73; B An (Kor) 69 72 66 75 70 73; J Lima (Por) 76 67 64 74 71 73;

426 J Ruth (Eng) 70 71 69 76 71 69; H Bacher (Aut) 74 68 66 75 74 69; A Domingo (Esp) 70 70 69 72 74 71;

428 D Kemmer (USA) 79 66 74 66 71 72; M Sell (Eng) 74 67 68 73 70 76;

429 S Hutsby (Eng) 74 68 73 70 73 71; J Hugo (RSA) 71 72 64 77 74 71; A McArthur (Sco) 80 67 71 65 75 71; G Boyd (Eng) 76 70 73 67 70 73; C Brazillier (Fra) 69 74 66 75 72 73; A Marshall (Eng) 75 67 67 77 69 74; A Forsyth (Sco) 75 65 68 75 71 75; T Remkes (Ned) 71 72 68 69 72 77; D Im (USA) 72 66 70 72 70 79;

430 T Murray (Eng) 68 72 70 73 76 71; M Brier (Aut) 71 69 73 70 75 72;

431 C Kim (USA) 73 66 69 77 74 72; T Haylock (Eng) 74 72 71 68 72 74; J Huldahl (Den) 76 70 72 66 72 75; S Dodd (Wal) 77 70 68 68 73 75; M Glauert (Ger) 73 70 64 74 74 76;

432 W Besseling (Ned) 69 73 70 72 78 70; S Kim (Kor) 78 67 77 63 75 72; T Pilkadaris (Aus) 75 73 71 67 73 73; F Calmels (Fra) 72 72 65 75 74 74; J Glennemo (Swe) 72 69 68 73 76 74; D Dixon (Eng) 72 74 73 66 72 75; O Bekker (RSA) 73 72 71 67 74 75; N Ravano (Ita) 74 70 69 72 71 76;

433 D Vancsik (Arg) 75 68 68 73 75 74; Å Nilsson (Swe) 74 69 68 74 73 75;

434 J Howarth (Eng) 75 67 69 75 77 71;

435 R McGowan (Eng) 77 71 70 66 75 76;

438 S Norris (RSA) 68 72 71 73 80 74;

444 T Van Der Walt (RSA) 71 69 70 72 81 81.