Niall Turner in action during the first round of the Iskandar Johor Open in Malaysia. Photo Eoin Clarke/www.golffile.ieHe may still be able to fall back on the Asian Tour but Muskerry’s Niall Turner is one of nearly 300 hopefuls chasing their dream at the second stage of the 2012 European Tour Qualifying School in Spain over the next four days.

The 28-year old former Youths international and runner up to Shane Lowry in the 2007 Irish Close Championship will tee it up at El Valle in Murcia on Friday praying that a hip injury that has impeded his progress this summer will not prove too much of a handicap.

One of 14 Irishmen in action at three of the four qualifying courses, Turner is 92nd in the Asian Tour money list with close to $28,000 from 14 starts and as he’s outside the top 60 he faces a return to the qualifying school there.

If he doesn’t turn up in Thailand for the final stage from January 18-21 that’s because he’s come through both the second and final stages of the process in Europe and earned his right to play alongside his old nemesis Lowry and superstar Rory McIlroy on the European Tour next term.

“As of now I would only have conditional status on the Asian tour for next year so in order to gain a full card I would have to go back to the Final Stage of Q-School, which I would be exempt into, or play well in the last event in Thailand. 

“However that tournament is the same week as final stage of the Q-school in Europe so hopefully I will not be able to play in it, all going well at second stage. 

“If I only had a Challenge Tour card for next year I would go back to Asian Q-School and try and gain full card out there as well and at least have options for the year; I would get the co sanctioned European Tour starts with an Asian card again and it would be easy to play both. 

“The Asian tour is very quiet in the summer months when the Challenge Tour is at its peak and vice versa towards the end of the year.”

Turner’s success at last year’s Asian Tour Q-School was his first from seven attempts in Europe, the US or Asia for the University of Minnesota graduate.

He made seven of 14 cuts on the Asian circuit and got to rub shoulders with the cream of the European Tour, though he missed the cut, in Barclays Singapore Open and the Iskandar Johor Open.

“I loved playing out in Asia this year,” he said recently. “I had never been to Asia before and got to see the majority of Asia really. It was a great experience to play on a major tour for a year, deal with travel, different conditions, severe heat in places. 

“I learned a huge amount from the experience especially how best to deal with world travel and jet lag and still try and play a tournament which for me was probably the hardest part about playing in Asia. 

“I will be able to draw on this for future travel around the world. I got to play in a few major European Tour events toward the end of the year which was a great buzz, played with a lot of good players at those events and was a huge motivating factor for me to gain a Euro Tour card and play out there full time. 

“I’m looking forward to second stage of the Q-School. But I’ve had a bad hip injury for the past two months that came at the worst possible time considering the events I was playing in. 

“It pretty much destroyed my swing and my ball striking was terrible, which is the part of the game that I have always been able to rely on. I have been rehabbing that on the Asian Tour and also since coming home so hopefully I can get it back to where it was all year and start hitting it better again and play well at second stage and finals.  

“Sean O’Connor from Hermitage is going to be on the bag. He’s a good buddy of mine so looking forward to having him loop for me. I’ve never played the course before but from what I have heard and researched it seems like a good fit for my game so should be a good week.”

Turner is joined at El Valle by 2007 Walker Cup star Jonny Caldwell, Ballinasloe talent Mark Staunton, Ballymena’s Chris Devlin and former Shamrock Rover striker Stephen Grant.

Waterville’s David Higgins tees off in the BMW PGA at Wentworth earlier this year. Photo Eoin Clarke/Golffile 2011Based in Florida, Devlin recently failed to come through the second stage of the US Q-School but insisted: “I still have a tremendous opportunity ahead of me, so I’ll be up for it. I still feel my game is in great shape.”

Birr native Grant, 34,  now lives in Florida’s West Palm Beach and also failed to make it through the second stage in the US after and exhausting dash from the first stage in America to Germany for the first hurdle in Europe.

“I had a bit of a nightmare at the US Q-School in America,” said Grant, who only took up the game serious when he was nearing the end of his professional soccer career. “The day that finished I ended up flying from Orlando to Germany for the European Q-School. I got through both of them back to back and I was wrecked because I had been playing Hooters Tour as well. 

“I took two weeks off afterwards and went back to Florida practice for seven day for Q School. But the day I came back to Orlando I was in bed for six straight days and I didn’t play for three weeks before Stage Two.” 

Grant knows how good you have to be to compete at the highest level on tour. In April he played a friendly game with Rory McIlroy and his buddy Harry Diamond at his home club, the Dye Preserve in West Palm Beach, just a week before the Holywood star made that brave but ultimately doomed bid to capture the Masters at Augusta.

“We went out on Saturday night and played on the Sunday and jeez he was playing some golf,” Grant recalled. “You could see that he was peaking for the Masters. He’s just so long off the tee.”

Grant lost 5 and 4 to McIlroy in the second round of the 2006 Irish Close at The European Club but he’s not trying to become a major winner but simply make his way onto a major tour.

“If I made it to the European Tour it probably would be as big as Rovers qualifying for the group stages of the Champions League,” he said recently. “I don’t think there are too many people, or anyone, who has played pro soccer and then made it to the European Tour.”

Grant had spells with seven League of Ireland clubs as well as Sunderland, Stockport County and the Boston Bulldogs but didn’t take up the game seriously until he was 25 and only full time when he his football career was cut short by injury at the age of 27.

After just two years in the amateur ranks he turned pro in 2008 but now wishes he waited longer.

“I probably needed to stay amateur for another two,” he said. “I got into a couple of Challenge Tour events which I wasn’t ready for. That knocked my confidence so I said I’d go back and play the EPD Tour in Germany and had a good solid year there. 

“For most of the year I looked like getting my card for the Challenge Tour but finished 13th in the money list in the end.”

Grant failed to come through stage two at El Valle by seven shots last year but believes he’s a better player now.

“By the time I got there my confidence wasn’t that high but it is totally different this year,” he said. “I am making a progress, which is the important thing. I needed to go back and find my way.” 

After turning the belly putter recently he believes he has all the elements needed to make it in Europe this year.

Castleknock professional Mark Staunton in action during the Irish PGA at Seapoint. Photo Jenny Matthews/“My game is ready now. I am going in there looking to get to the finals and at least a Challenge Tour card for making the cut. 

“I have consistently shot good numbers this year and it’s all about momentum and confidence. I haven’t struggled to hit the ball for two years but it’s all about making a few putts, it just makes the game so much easier.

“I know the course from last year and when I was assigned the same venue this year I decided I had to improve my putting. It’s pretty short so it is all about putting.” 

After watching his beloved Hoops make the Europa League, he’s determined to go one better and secure his own “Champions League” ticket as a golfer.

He said: “Rovers have been doing great and it’s pretty cool for them to be playing against the likes of Spurs. 

“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think I could make it. It would be pretty cool to pull it off.”

Challenge Tour regular Colm Moriarty will tee it up at La Manga Club in Murcia’s Cartagena region alongside his 2003 Walker Cup team mate Noel Fox and former amateur rivals Michael McGeady and Neil O’Briain.

Eighth in his Stage One qualifier at Dundonald Links, Fox knows that time is running out for him as he prepares to celebrate his 38th birthday in January.

“There comes a time when you have to make a decision,” said the Dubliner who has yet to make the breakthrough after six years in the pro ranks. “Q-School is old hat for me at this stage but I’ve been playing quite nicely recently so we’ll see.”

Another five Irishmen will be in action at Las Colinas Golf & Country Club, in Alicante. The quintet is headed by former European Tour player and Irish PGA Region No 2 David Higgins and Challenge Tour player Niall Kearney.

They are joined by Ballyliffin’s Brendan McCarroll - 15th on the Alps Tour money list this year - and Munster pals Cian McNamara and Aaron O’Callaghan

Second in the Irish Region’s Race to Mount Juliet earlier this year, Higgins turned 39 on Monday having kept his game sharp with practice at Quinta do Lago in Portugal before coming second in the Titleist PGA Play-offs in Turkey last month.

“My game is still good,” said Higgins who last played full time on tour in 2007. “I am good enough to compete on the tour but when I have been out there my game has not been sharp enough over four rounds. My long game is as good as it always was but I need to be sharper in the other departments to compete.

“I felt a bit like an old man at the first stage but while I’m older, I am also wiser.”

An assistant professional to Lee Harrington at Limerick Golf Club, 25-year old McNamara goes to the Q-School without huge pressure on his shoulders as he hopes to be fully qualified next April.

“I played a year on the Europro Tour a few years ago but it wasn’t a plan,” he said. “Any event I played solidly in was only just breaking even, so it didn’t make sense and I decided to do my PGA apprenticeship.

“Playing is my main priority but I enjoy the PGA aspect of things so I don’t know what the future holds. All I do know is that the mini tours are not an option. But if I get a Challenge Tour I’ll be out there though the goal is still the European Tour card.”

Douglas native O’Callaghan has been an assistant pro at Baton Rouge Country Club in Louisiana since last year and combined his club duties with regional events in the area.

However, his visa expired recently and having been forced to come home on 1 August to renew it (he was told to remain at home until at least 1 October) he decided to enter the European Tour Q-School.

“Luckily I played well in Dundonald and got through to the Second Stage,” he said. “If I had my way I’d be in a golf shop in Baton Rouge working right now. But I am playing reasonably well so it was a nice surprise to get through.”

A graduate of Southeastern Louisiana University, he entered the PGA training programme there and was shocked to be forced to come home to renew his visa after just one year of his apprenticeship.

“I see myself long term over there but I still chase the dream of getting on the European Tour and being successful,” said the Cork player. “If I get through to the final stage it would be all or nothing. I don’t know if I’d take up a Challenge Tour card unless I had very strong status. 

“I am very happy doing what I am doing and getting on the European Tour would be the ultimate dream, but I also have this back up plan.”