By Brian Keogh
Peter O’Keeffe turns 26 tomorrow but the big-hitting Douglas man plans to put the celebrations on hold until next week, when he hopes he’ll have his European Tour card in his pocket.
As he prepares to make his professional debut in the nerve-jangling, 108-hole European Tour Qualifying School Finals at San Roque today, this six foot five man mountain has every right to slap himself on the back for getting this far.
Yet he revealed that he almost never made it to the Q-School in the first place as he waited in vain for a call-up from the Irish selectors for September’s Home International Matches at County Louth.
Having played for Ireland at Boys and Youths level, the Southeastern Louisiana graduate was fully prepared to pull out of the clashing first stage of the Q-School at St Annes Old Links on England’s Lancashire coast and pull on the green jersey as a senior player.
"This year I was disappointed not to make the Irish team for the Home Internationals but in hindsight it was a blessing in disguise,” said O’Keeffe as he prepared to do battle for a top 30 spot and a dream ticket to the European Tour next season.
“I would have missed the first stage of the Qualifying School because I told the team captain I was available for Ireland right up until the last minute. But the call never came. Now I'm just delighted that it didn't because I wouldn’t be here."
The qualifying school has been on O’Keeffe’s radar since he graduated in May. But despite his disappointment at missing out on full Irish international honours, he resisted the temptation to turn professional until he had successfully negotiated last week’s second stage.
He needed a birdie-birdie finish at St Annes to qualify for Stage Two in Jerez, where he comfortably cruised over the finish line in a share of sixth place on five under par.
And as he tees it up in a 156 -strong field studded with 29 European Tour winners, including former Ryder Cup stars Andrew Coltart and Joakim Haeggman, he’s fully focussed on finishing the job.
Like fellow Irishmen Colm Moriarty, Stephen Browne, Michael McGeady and Damian Mooney, O’Keeffe must finish inside the top 70 and ties after the first four rounds to stay on track for his card and guarantee starts in every Challenge Tour event next year.
The top 30 and ties after six rounds will claim full European Tour membership next Tuesday evening and O’Keeffe reckons that a level par total will be more than enough to get him over the line.
With fellow Douglas man David Connolly on his bag, he said: "All I have to keep all the disasters off the card and see where that leaves me. Studying past results, anything around even par for six rounds will be enough. I have gone through the stats."
Derry man McGeady is also making his debut in the Finals but Moriarty, Browne and Mooney have been here twice before with Dubliner Browne tasting success in 2004.
"It doesn't take any kamikaze type golf or going for glory from the first tee,” Browne said. “If you play solid golf for six rounds you will get through it.
"You don't want any disasters or to be taking on any risky shots, certainly early in the week. You just have to finish in the top 30 and try and treat it as much like a normal week as possible."
Moriarty, 28, missed a gold opportunity to grab his card through the top 20 in the Challenge Tour rankings after winning in July, but feels ready to take advantage this week
"I played well this season but near the end I wasn't quite as sharp as I had been early on in the year,” said Moriarty, who finished 34th in the Challenge Tour rankings. "The win in Wales put me in contention for a card and I was right in the shake up at one stage at 23rd in the rankings.
"The end of the season was disappointing but I have a chance to finish off the job this week and turn a good year in to a great one.”
McGeady has putted terribly this season but believes he has turned things around with help from his coach Brendan McDaid.
"I was never that bad from tee to green but I was in denial about my putting,” said the Derry man, who made just four cuts from 18 Challenge Tour starts. “As the old saying goes, you drive for show and you putt for dough. If you are playing badly, you can save it with good putting.
"I am putting a lot better and feeling a lot better on the greens. I had a Challenge Tour category this year but never took advantage and played terribly all year.”
Mooney is the oldest Irish contender at 39 and despite firing an eagle and 23 birdies during Stage Two, he’s not making any predictions.
Mooney said: “I only finished seven under par last week because I had a few big catastrophes. So keeping those off the card will be vital.
"There is always a chance that I will get my card but I am not making any predictions or putting myself under any pressure. Hopefully my experience will be a help and I can play well and enjoy myself.”
Irish Tee times (Today/Friday)
New Course/Old Course
09.40 Gary Clark (Eng), Andrew Oldcorn (Sco), DAMIAN MOONEY (NIr);
09.50 Miguel Rodriguez (Arg), STEPHEN BROWNE (IRL), Ben Mason (Eng).
Old Course/New Course
09.50 COLM MORIARTY (IRL), Steven O'Hara (Sco), Richie Ramsay (Sco);
10.20 (10th tee) MICHAEL MCGEADY (IRL), Adam Bland (Aus), Graham Fox (Sco);
10.50 PETER O'KEEFFE (IRL), Thomas Aiken (RSA), Juan Abbate (Arg).