Just because you’ve been there, done that and bought the tee shirt, doesn’t mean you have any right to cruise through the six-day “prison sentence” they call the European Tour Qualifying School final stage.
It was Philip Walton who said that the 108-hole battle for a European Tour card is about as enjoyable as a stretch in Mountjoy. But while the Dubliner isn’t a member of the Irish quartet who will continue their card odyssey at PGA de Catalunya near Girona in northeast Spain - the men in question are Niall Kearney, Simon Thornton, Colm Moriarty and Damian Mooney - he can identify with some of the fallen idols who will tee it up on the Stadium and Tour courses today.
Take Scotland’s Andrew Coltart and Sweden’s Jarmo Sandelin, who felt the stomach churning pressure of Ryder Cup action in the “Bear Pit” of Brookline in 1999. Or England’s Paul Broadhurst, a member of the Ryder Cup side that lost the War on the Shore at Kiawah Island in 1991.
A six-time European Tour winner, 45-year old Broadhurst finds himself back at “School” for the first time since 2002 because he is no longer able to claim an exemption as one of the all-time leading money winners.
Then there’s Marc Warren (a Challenge Tour winner in Killarney in 2005) who was hailed as the future of Scottish golf just three years ago when he partnered Colin Montgomerie to victory in the World Cup.
All these men have made the journey from the Q-School to the highest peaks of professional golf and come back down again. And while none of the Irish quartet are strangers to the final stage of golf’s toughest test, they are desperate to taste the sweet nectar of success for themselves.
Former Royal County Down assistant Thornton, the English born player who now carries an Irish passport, came close to achieving the holy grail for tour school graduates this summer when he went into the final round of the BMW Championship in Munich just a couple of shots off the lead.
In the end, the 33-year old finished ninth and while he amassed €116,954 from 22 European Tour starts following his successful graduation here last year, he finished 141st in the Race to Dubai standings and must do it all over again.
Moriarty, the 31-year old former Walker Cup player from Athlone, will be making his fifth appearance at the finals with an extra spring in his step having finished 37th in the Open Championship at St Andrews in the summer.
“The fact I played okay here and felt quite comfortable is probably more important to me than where I finished,” he said at the Home of Golf. “It makes me feel I’m not out of place when I get out here. I’m not afraid of being out here.”
Moriarty had hoped to graduate to the tour through the top 20 in the Challenge Tour rankings but with just two top-10s to his credit, he eventually finished 43rd in the Rankings to set up another visit to ‘school.’
“I have had a frustrating six or seven years since I turned pro. But I’ve had some decent performances too,” Moriarty said in Girona, where he missed the 72-hole cut last year. “I still think I’m improving and if I eventually get on tour it will all have been worthwhile.”
The Glasson touring professional will begin his card quest on the tougher Stadium Course this morning — frost permitting — knowing that he must take on the course and shake it by the throat.
“It is easier to get defensive on the Stadium Course and try not to make mistakes, which is what you generally try to do over six rounds,” he said. “But I suppose the best attitude is to go out and try and win the tour school rather than just targeting the top 30.”
A wet autumn has left the spectacular, 36-hole hole PGA de Catalunya resort looking a lot greener than 12 months ago and while early morning frost has forced the tour to put back the start by 90 minutes until 10.30am, they still expect to finish next Thursday evening when the top 30 and ties after six rounds will be awarded membership in Category 11B.
Surviving the 72 hole cut is the first objective and while Mooney failed to do that on his only previous appearance in the finals at San Roque three years ago, Kearney knows what it’s like to go all six rounds at Q-School.
The 2009 Walker Cup star and Brabazon Trophy winner missed out on his card by just three strokes last year but having earned Challenge Tour status, he missed most of this year’s campaign with a shoulder injury before returning to action in late October.
“I know the ropes at this stage after playing all six rounds at the School last year,” said Kearney, who has a medical exemption for the 2011 Challenge Tour. “I only missed my full card by three shots but I got a Challenge Tour card and I’ll have a medical exemption to play on that tour next year.”
Kearney showed form last week, when he cruised through stage two. But he knows that he must hole putts over the next six days if he is to join his former Irish amateur team mate Rory McIlroy at the starting line for the 2011 Race to Dubai.
“The game plan is to play the same from tee to green as I did last year,” Kearney said. “But I’d just like to hole a few more putts this time.”
Many wonder why 42-year old Belfast man Mooney has not made it onto the tour by now. His prodigious hitting would make him one of the longest players on the circuit but he has often been let down by his short game.
Despite that, he’s been in brilliant form this year, finishing second to David Higgins on the domestic circuit and qualifying inside the top three at both stage one and stage two of the School.
He knows he must hole the putts over the next six days if he is to make the top 30 and ties who will earn their cards next Thursday evening. If he pulls it off after 252 holes of qualifying through all three stages, it will go down as one of the great Irish performances this year.
Irish tee times
Stadium Course (Tour Course) - Niall Kearney 12:00 (09.55); Simon Thornton 12:15 (10:00); Colm Moriarty 12:30 (10:25)
Tour Course (Stadium Course) - Damian Mooney 11:55 (09:45).