Higgins starts from scratch

By Brian Keogh

Waterville warrior David Higgins won't give up his tour dream - despite a massive kick in the teeth from the European Tour.

The Kerryman, 35, must begin his career from scratch this season after being struck down by a mysterious bout of hepatitis late last year.

Amazingly, the Tour refused to grant him a medical extension that would have allowed him to play a reduced schedule on the main circuit this term.

Now Higgins must rely on his battling inner spirit to claw his way back into golf's big leagues.

Determined to keep going, Higgins said: "I suppose I am back to square one again and I have to refocus. Right now I have no category at all on the main tour so you just have to ask yourself, am I going to do this?

"I have decided that I am going to do it and the goal is to get into that top 10 on the Challenge Tour.

"If I felt I couldn't do it any more or felt that I couldn't get a bit better, I'd stop. But there is something keeping me going.

"There is something pushing me on. It is a belief, I suppose, and I will keep going until that feeling is not there any more."

Higgins was just €15,000 away from securing category 12 status for 2008 when he was laid low by a mystery liver complaint in late July last year.

He was firing on all cylinders at the time after finishing tied 10th in the Scandinavian Masters and tied 17th in the KLM Open in Holland in successive weeks.

He had momentum on his side as he battled to retain the European Tour card.

But all his plans were smashed the following week in Scotland, when he was struck down by what turned out to be a form of hepatitis during the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles.

The European Tour studied Higgins' application for a medical exemption but decided that, unlike American Notah Begay, he was not entitled to one.

Tiger Woods' best pal played just 10 events last term before heading home to New Mexico after withdrawing from the Irish Open with severe leg pain.

Begay has long suffered from sciatica and while he failed to return to Europe last year, his bad back did not prevent him from jetting all over the US to play golf.

The European Tour still granted him a medical exemption from 2008 though its Director of Operations David Garland has since confessed that if they had known how many events he'd play in the US, "Notah would not have got the medical exemption he has been given, if at all."

That's little consolation to Higgins, who will resume his career when the Challenge Tour's Latin American Swing begins next month.

He said: "I am disappointed that I didn't get a medical exemption because they basically left me without any category. Even if they let me play the events that I missed last year that would have been something.

"So I am disappointed but it is up to me to get my card back and play my way back into it.

"There is nothing I can do really. It is not in my hands, unfortunately. All I can do is get back to playing well again."

Thankfully, Higgins is back to full health again a worrying three-month period that left sapped of all energy.

He explained: "I first realised there was something wrong during a Tuesday practice round in the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles. I only played nine holes but I was really tired.

"That night I thought I had some kind of food poisoning so I just took it easy the next day. I played on Thursday and on Friday I was just finished. I had no energy and just felt horrible.

"I went to hospital for tests because they couldn't figure out what it was. I had jaundice and they had to make sure it wasn't something really serious, which it wasn't in the end.

"I kept wondering, what's wrong with me and was telling myself that I'd be alright the next week. But it just stayed the same and the worrying part is when you are going to doctors and they don't know what's wrong.

"You think, I hope it is nothing serious. Lucky enough it is gone and it puts a different light on things, I can tell you."

Higgins has twice earned his tour card through the Challenge Tour rankings - finishing second to Stenson in the 2000 rankings, when he won three times.

In 2005 he was back on the second tier circuit but again came through to take his tour card through the money list.

Now he's back to square one again but he knows he has the game to come to finish among the top ten money winners who earn full cards for 2009.

He said: "I'm off to Latin American soon and I'm looking forward to it. When I was on the Challenge Tour last time I more or less had my card after three and a half months.

"I was third in Mexico and lost a play-off in Guatemala and I will be prepared for those events and hopefully I will do well in them when the come around this time.

"You just have to tough it out for a year and get on the main tour again. Last season I felt I was getting close to where I wanted to be. So it is just a matter of getting there again."

Dreams inspire golfers like Higgins and after pre-qualifying for the Open at Carnoustie last July, he's set his sights on playing that major again.

Despite the fact that he missed the cut, a second round 71 filled him with confidence that he can do well in the Open.

He recalled: "It was great because I played nicely in the second round. It is an event I had only ever watched on TV and you always wonder how you will perform under that pressure and in that kind of arena.

"After playing it last year, I felt that if I can get back there playing well it is a tournament that I fancy doing well in with my links background.

"Obviously luck has to be on your side but I'd love to play that on a nice sunny day with a nice wind blowing. I'd feel right at home."

If his fighting spirit's still intact, it would be hard to bet against him.