Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell could be joined by a couple of old team mates on the multi-million dollar PGA Tour next season.
As West Waterford’s Seamus Power opened his bid with a level par 72 in Texas, Carrickmore’s Fergal Rafferty and Ballymena’s Chris Devlin will tee it up in the second stage of the US Q-School in Florida today hoping to swap the mini tours for golf’s major leagues.
If they make it through to the final stage in California at the end of the month they will be guaranteed places on the second tier Nationwide Tour. But the Ulster duo are dreaming big and know that a good week will leave them just six rounds away from living the American dream.
Houston based Rafferty, 24, coincided with McIlroy in the Ulster interprovincial squad in 2007 while 36-year old Devlin famously gave up part of his scholarship funding to help McDowell join him at the University of Alabama, Birmingham more than a decade ago.
Hoping to take of home town advantage at Hombre Golf Club in Panama City, Devlin said: “I still keep in touch with Graeme and go up to Orlando when he’s at home to play with him and have dinner.
“I have played with him enough to know I can stick with him every bit of the way. It is just a matter of taking my chances and playing the way I know I can.”
Devlin reached stage two last season but crashed to a nightmare 82 on the Good and Bad nines at Hombre before rallying with three strong rounds.
He said: “Last year I played the Hombre course and had a really bad first round, a bad day with everything. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. If I’d shot 74 the first day I’d have won the thing. If I hit it in trouble, I found more trouble trying to escape.
“It’s a tricky little course, very tight off the tee with very small greens with a lot of slope. It’s one of these courses you can play and it will roll off a green and end up in an impossible place.
“It is just a matter of keeping your head. I’ll be going out to win that’s for sure and leaving nothing behind.”
Devlin hit the headlines in 2008 when he qualified for the US Open at Torrey Pines just two years after undergoing an operation to cure a debilitating glandular illness.
“You have what is called a thymus gland in your chest,” he said at the time. “As you get older it disintegrates but strangely enough, mine got larger and larger. I didn’t feel any effects until I got out of college and I knew I wasn’t hitting the ball the way I knew I could. And I wasn’t playing as well as I knew I could.
“I was feeling very fatigued playing. I had it for a few years and I went to see numerous doctors and neurologists and for a while they thought I had food allergies. Other doctors thought I was allergic to bermuda grass.
“The symptoms got really bad - I had double vision, I couldn’t really talk. I couldn’t swallow my food without drinking water. When I would go practice, my right arm would come off the club all the time. It would go dead after I hit 12 golf balls.
“Eventually the discovered what it was and saw the mass in my chest. They went in and cut me open. I had open heart surgery and they removed the gland. The surgeon came in to see me the next morning and said, I don’t know how you were functioning at all. I expect you you to have at least 1000 times the energy on a golf course that you have had before.”
Father of two Devlin played on the National Professional Golf Tour this season - a mini tour with weekly prize funds in excess of $150,000 - and finished 11th on the money list thanks to six top 10’s and a maiden professional win last March.
He’s also through to the Second Stage of the European Tour Qualifying School in Spain next month but will only travel there if he fails in the US as the final stage in America clashes with Stage Two in Europe.
“I’ve been playing pretty well but I’m just a little tired,” he said last week. “I’ve been having a pretty good season, lot of Top 10’s and one win earlier in the year. I haven’t got hot yet but feel I can get hot any time.
“I went to first stage in Europe to have something to fall back on. If I reach the Final Stage in California I know I can’t do both Q Schools now but it’s a nice problem to have. I had a little tendinitis in my wrist at Stage One over here but I strapped it up and went on and hit the ball great in the final round and shot 67 to qualify. If I don’t get through this next stage I will pack my bags and just head for Europe and take it from there.”
Devlin still keeps in regular contact with old pal McDowell and admits that watching a friend win majors and Ryder Cups just makes him more determined to make the grade.
“When you have been doing it as long as I have it is a lot tougher to give it up,” the Ulsterman said. “I have played with Graeme enough to know I can play with him every bit of the way. It is just a mtter of taking your chances and playing the way I know I can.
“I have two young kids now (Ciadan and Grace Ann) and it is a lot harder when you have family obligations too and are on the road all the time with your good days and bad days.
“I had a bad illness that set me back for four years and the last couple of years I’ve been playing a lot better and I feel if I can just get back out there I will play great. Having got so much more experience now I know I didn’t have to worry about all the little things that may have bothered me when I was younger.
“Now it is just about getting an opportunity to get out there and I have got to step it up and do it. I am playing well enough I just have to jeep my head on straight.”
Coached by former British Amateur champion Gordon Sherry, Rafferty hasn’t seen McIlroy since the US Open champion gave him tickets for the Shell Houston Open two years ago.
But he believes he can join his former Ulster team mate on the world’s biggest tour, insisting: “I’m pretty confident that I will play well and give myself a good chance. If I get through to the finals I’ll have nothing to lose. There’s no reason why I can’t play well there too.”
Since graduating from Sam Houston State University with a degree in Kinesiology last year, Rafferty has honed his game on the Adams Golf Pro Tour in Texas, finishing 11th on the money list during the Winter Series.
A former Boys and Youths International, he lives just 20 minutes from downtown Houston and is now well established in the area and determined to make a career on the US Tour.
“I’ve got to play four more good rounds and I will have Nationwide status,” he said. “I’ve been playing well since May and I’m pretty confident that I will play well and give myself a good chance.
“If I get through I have nothing to lose. It’s six rounds to get on the PGA Tour so there is no reason why I can’t play well there too.”
A huge fan of McIlroy’s, Rafferty would love to rub shoulders with the US Open champion again. He’s also met McDowell at a casual winter tournament at Portrush and always taken the opportunity to learn as much as he can from the tour pros who cross his path.
“I’m good friends with Matt McAlpin and asked me up to play in a winter thing at Portrush with Graeme and about 20 others, before he won at Pebble Beach,” Fergal explained. “It is good to pick their brains and I have managed to play with a few guys on the PGA Tour here.
“The way they practice and the areas they work on. They write down detailed stats and are really specific about what they work on. I have incorporated that into my game and it has worked out really well.”
He’s coached by former British Amateur champion Gordon Sherry, the Scottish player once heralded as golf’s next big thing. Sherry never quite made the grade but he’s given Rafferty the benefit of his experience.
“I was in Arizona with him last week and I will see him when I get home,” the Tyrone man explained. “It’s great to hear from him what to do and what not to do. I trust him a lot and I like what he has to say. He’s played with everybody from Nicklaus to Woods and Palmer and Watson, so he knows a lot about the game.”
Rafferty will tee it up at Plantation Reserve near Fort Lauderdale having failed to get into his first preference venue at Redstone in Humble, Texas.
“I haven’t played golf in Florida but the grass is bermuda, the same as in Houston, so it shouldn’t be a big shock,” he said.
The bermuda certainly didn’t seem to bother Power too much as he had one birdie and one bogey in a level par 72 on the Members Course at Redstone.
Around 20 players will qualify for the final stage from the Texas venue but Power is three shots outside that mark and eight off the lead.
Kevin Kisner shot an eight under 64 to lead by one from Ron Whittaker with former US PGA champion Rich Beem (66) tied for third. Other big names competing at Power’s venue include Mathias Gronberg and Jeff Maggert, who both shot 68s.
Power is tied for 44th with the likes of Woody Austin, a three-time PGA Tour winner who was runner up to Tiger Woods in the 2007 US PGA at Southern Hills.