Keeping things in perspective is crucial for the 156 hopefuls who will tee it up in the first round of the European Tour Qualifying School finals at PGA Catalunya over the next six days.
But while players such as Waterville’s David Higgins and Liverpudlian Nick Dougherty have tasted the big time and know what it takes to get there, juggling desire and expectations with mounting pressure is the big challenge for the less experienced campaigners at Denis O’Brien’s 36-hole Catalan resort.
Dougherty breezed through the Q-School at his first attempt a decade ago but after making just one cut this season, the 29-year old former Rookie of the Year is trying hard to be philosophical about his bid to finish in the top 30 and ties who will win cards after six rounds:
“Last time I was at Qualifying School wasn’t stressful at all, and I loved every minute of it – just being there was a bonus for me at that stage in my career. The emotions are obviously a bit different coming back here ten years later, but it’s still only a golf tournament. It’s often referred to as the dreaded Tour School, but we’re only here to play golf – it’s like we’re expected to find a cure for cancer this week!
“But now that I am here, I’m going to do everything I can to make it a successful week. Obviously in an ideal world I would’ve played well enough to have kept my card, but the reality is that I didn’t play anywhere near well enough. Things can turn around quickly in this game. There are still some technical issues I need to address going forward, but all my focus this week has to be on playing the best I possibly can.
“I’ve really struggled all year to keep the ball in play, but if I can do that this week, then I’ll give myself a good chance. Things haven’t gone my way this year and of course it’s been very tough at times, but there’s no point feeling sorry for yourself in this game. You’ve just got to keep plugging away and hoping you turn the corner. If I can play well here this week and build some confidence, it could be the start of good things for me again.”
Higgins is making his eighth appearance at the final stage at the age of 39 and while hasn’t held a full tour card since 2006, he knows that keeping his emotions in check is key:
“You see all these young lads and remember when you were that age. But we are here and I will have to try and make the most of it. I have chance now and it is up to me to try and go out and do it. That’s the thing I have on a lot of these guys. Sometimes experience isn’t a good thing, when you have been at Q-School too many times but I know the course, it is playing very long and the ball is not travelling. Guys might panic a little bit because it is a bit difficult but I am experienced at this stage and I know I just have to play my own game.
“It would be fantastic [to get my card] and have another shot at it. It is just about me trying to be relaxed, which is the hardest thing to do because you want it so badly. If I can do that I will be fine. My game is as good as anyone’s here and it is up to me. The ball is not running and coming from a links style of play, that probably doesn’t suit me. But that’s alright. I’ll just get on with it.”
Limerick Golf Club’s Cian McNamara believes he’s on a shot to nothing in his first appearance at the finals as he’s about to qualify as a PGA professional.The former South of Ireland champion closed with a bogey free round at stage two and sees no reason to stop playing well now:
“I’m feeling quite confident and very happy with last week and the way I conducted myself under pressure over the last two rounds. I was surprised the way I coped in the last round, which shows that I am learning. Having my friend Graham Dunlea on the bag helped and I was solid and didn’t let the situation bother me.
“I do have a bail out but my main ambition is still playing. As I’m about to qualify as a PGA professional, that’s taken the pressure off me in these events and I have achieved quite a lot and improved over the last year. I might as well keep going and try to get as much as I can out of this. My goal this week is to try and get a tour card, I don’t see why not.
“After the scores I have shot at the first two stages, I don’t see why I should have any other attitude. The prime objective is to make the cut and go from there. The Stadium Course is the tougher of the two and the rough is quite steep so the onus is on driving there. If I can drive the ball well there, it’s not a slog. The Tour course is where you need to do your scoring. All is good and I’m very happy with how last week went.”
Failure is not an option for Ulstermen Jonathan Caldwell and Chris Devlin, who face a return to mini tour obscurity after rubbing shoulders in the amateur ranks alongside pals Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell respectively.
“It’s do or die, it really is,” said 27-year old Caldwell, who earned his card here in 2008 only to lose it immediately. “Making the four-round cut would at least get me back on the Challenge Tour.”
Four years ago he was McIlroy’s partner in the Walker Cup at Royal County Down but majors, the Race to Dubai millions and the world No 1 ranking are a million miles away for the Clandeboye man right now.
“I am happy to be here,” he said, recalling that he needed to survive a four-way play-off for three spots just to qualify this week. “I have only played six events on the Challenge Tour this year, never got anything going and made just one cut. Getting on the Challenge Tour again is the main goal so making the cut would take the pressure off and then I can go for it.
“I’m just not getting enough golf in. I might play one week and then it’s another three weeks before I get another event. I only played 14 events on the main tour when I got my card here for 2009. Then I was jumping between the main tour and the Challenge Tour. I suppose I threw myself in the deep end a little bit. First year out as an amateur and I didn’t really know where to start. If I got my card again, I’d plan things out from the start and make sure I knew when I was going to take a week off and when I was going to stay out there.”
At the age of 36, Florida-based Devlin is hoping to finally hit the jackpot after nine years of struggles as a professional.Last month he missed out at the second stage of the PGA Tour Q-School and headed to Europe for stage two, which he passed thanks to a homeward 31 in the final round.
“This is massive for me. There are no if’s, but’s or maybe’s - I’ve got to get through this,” said the Ballymena man, who lost nearly four years of his career due to rare glandular disorder that required open heart surgery.
Set for his first Q-School final on any tour, he said: “I’m not nervous yet. I know I am playing well I just have to go out and play the way I know I can and I will do fine. This is massive for me. There are no if’s, but’s or maybe’s - I’ve got to get through this. I believe it’s where I should be. It’s where I belong. I’ve spent so many years trying to do it and been through so much.
“Yeah, it’s a bonus to be here but I’ve been at this for nine years. Four of them I couldn’t even hit it but it would be great to get through for myself, for my family who have been through so much and all the people who have supported me with sponsorship. They are the ones that kept me going through the whole thing and it would be great to be able to pay them back.
“I am certainly in a better position than I have been in the past. Getting to finals means I will have some kind of European Tour membership and when I am writing away for my invites for tournaments here and there, they will be easier to get when you are a member of the tour than when you are not. If I got a Challenge Tour card it would be tough to travel but I would certainly try because the rewards are so great at the end of it.”