Philip Walton once described it as being “like a prison sentence” but for triple major winner Padraig Harrington, the European Tour Qualifying School is a place of horror. In fact, it's the only place he has ever seen a ghost.
The annual, six-round nightmare pits 156 players - a mixture of young dreamers and old battle-hardened old hands - in a scramble for 30 tour cards. It is a nerve-shredding race where the only fans are their relatives and friends, the golfing equivalent of a slow death that leaves lifelong scars.
Ireland has six runners in the starting line up at the stunning PGA Catalunya Resort in the shadow of the Pyrenees with Kilkenny’s Gary Murphy back looking for his card for the first time since he finished sixth on his third visit to the finals in 2002.
He is joined by Challenge Tour regulars Simon Thornton (second appearance) and Colm Moriarty (fourth), Jonathan Caldwell (second), John Kelly (second) and Royal Dublin’s Niall Kearney, who has decided to tee it up as a professional after cruising impressively through the second stage in Cadiz last week.
If Kearney goes all the way, he will emulate Harrington who needed just one attempt to earn his tour card in 1995. The Dubliner went straight from the Walker Cup to the second stage at St Cyprien in France and then on to San Roque where he set his storied career in motion by finishing 16th on 432 alongside the likes of John McHenry and a 26-year old Argentinian by the name of Angel Cabrera.
The Dubliner doesn't remember seeing Cabrera or Murphy, who fell in pre-qualifying in his first visit to the school. But he vividly remembers how horribly nervous he felt on that journey until he clapped eyes on a specter in spikes.
“I was obviously very nervous and I walked by a guy who was the closest thing to death walking that you ever saw,” Harrington recalled this week. “He was white as a sheet, like a ghost. That cheered me up no end, that I felt better than him. His misery gave me comfort. The fact that he was suffering more than me, that made me feel better about it.”
Harrington earned the 16th card at San Roque near Valderrama but his celebrations were cut short afterwards when he fell into conversation with a well know player who had fallen flat on his face at the final hurdle, bringing home to him the selfishness and cruelty of the Qualifying School.
“He was leading or close to leading going into the final round and shot 81, taking a six down the last to miss his card by a shot,” Harrington said. “I remember talking to him afterwards and he was trying to convince me that he deserved his card and I should, maybe, be giving up mine for him.
"He couldn’t make sense of it at all. It totally overwhelmed him. I am there celebrating and this guy is looking for sympathy or empathy but it just wasn’t there. It brought it home to me how difficult it is. He was shell-shocked and for me it was a relief to get any sort of card.”
Sky Sports commentator and former tour winner Richard Boxall made two visits to the school and described it as a frightening experience.
“Like a bright light panic,” he told Ross Biddicome in his excellent book, Golf on the Edge. “It’s the kind of place where you want your mummy, but you can make some decent money if you get through and have five good years on tour.”
Kilkenny man Murphy has earned over €2 million since he first earned his tour card in 2000 and had he earned another €16,000 this year, the 37-year-old would be sunning himself on a beach instead of making his first appearance at the Q-School since 2002.
You putt for dough, they say, and Murphy hasn’t done that this season
“If I putt well, I shouldn’t have any problems and if I don’t, I might,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Caldwell earned his card here last year but lost it in a blaze of missed cuts while Moriarty and Thornton will be hoping to take the step up after average seasons on the Challenge Tour.
Kearney, fresh from August’s Walker Cup, knows he will get several sponsor’s invitations next year no matter what happens. But with three management companies waiting in the wings, he wants to secure at least a Challenge Tour card by making the four round cut for the top 70 and ties.
“After that it is a bit of a shoot out over the last two rounds for the top 30,” he said, adding that the two courses being used this week after far tougher than Costa Ballena, where he closed with rounds of 67 and 66 to finish tied second.
Dubliner Kelly is the oldest Irish contender at 38 but he believes he’s a far better player than he was in 2005, when he reached the finals for the first time.
“I was like a rabbit in the headlights,” said Kelly, who will have Padraig Harrington’s brother Tadhg on his bag.
The Harrington presence is no-coincidence. Kelly has been using Harrington’s back room team to re-invent himself as a player and blossomed over the past two years.
“Thanks to 'Harrington Golf', I am a totally different player,” he said.
Hopefully, the elder Harrington won’t see any ghosts over the next six days.
Irish tee times Rd 1 and 2 (Irish time)
Stadium Course (7,172 yards, par 72) / Tour Course (6,577 yards, par 70)
10th tee (1st tee): 9.50 (8.35) Santiago Luna (Sp), Gary Murphy (Irl), Christophe Brazillier (Fra)’
10.05 (9.0) Niall Kearney (Irl), Ake Nilsson (Swe), Rory Hie (Ina).
Tour Course/Stadium Course
1st tee (10th tee)
9.50 (8.35) Liam Bond (Wal), Greig Hutcheon (Sco), John Kelly (Irl).
10th tee (1st tee)
9.05 (10.10) Wil Besseling (Ned), Floris de Vries (Ned), Simon Thornton (Irl).
9.35 (8.30) Iain Pyman (Eng), Miles Tunnicliff (Eng), Colm Moriarty (Irl)
10.05 (9.0) Callum Macaulay (Sco), Mark Tullo (Chi), Jonathan Caldwell (NIr).