When the world’s elite golfers are trying to decide what $8 million tournament to play in next in the silly season, there is an entirely different underworld simply trying to retain their status on the European Tour.
There will be no glamorous celebrations at the end of the six-round slog. There will be no big life-changing cheques lodged to bank accounts.
The knowledge that they have somewhere to ply their trade next year will be reward enough for what is perceived as the toughest school in European golf; the Tour School.
As our own Paul Dunne will attest having secured his playing rites this time last year, the value of a Tour card from the school has been diminished over the years. Getting your card is only the very first rung on the ladder to establishing yourself on Tour.
Nine of the card-earners last year finished inside the top 110 on this year’s order of merit. The reason for this is because of the change of emphasis from just Europe to Asia and Africa. There are more events on the “European” Tour these days, but there has been a dramatic dilution of a player’s ability to compete due to the inclusion of players from the Sunshine and Asian Tours in many of these events.
The assumption was that once you have your hard-earned card from the school all you have to do is show up and collect a few cheques. Not so, you were unlikely to get into anything other than the lesser events. Even if you perform well in those tournaments the purses are relatively small compared to the better events, so your chances of making an impression in the overall rankings are slimmer.
Dunne is a good example of a card-holder who even with good finishes, including a top-10 in Denmark, made his card for next year by only four positions.
He did really well in his first year on tour – have a look at his colleagues who also earned their cards last year and see where many of them ended up, back at the school this week. Thirteen of the top 40 are back at the school this week, and the others either opted out or did not get to the final stage.
The European Tour is finally going to give more incentive to the graduates next year. If you earn your card or qualify through the Challenge Tour you will be in a better position to get into the bigger events.
The system is changing to give the qualifiers a better chance at competing for the bigger purses. This will give them a fairer chance to climb the Tour ladder instead of being restricted to the slippery bottom rungs of the old system where it seemed impossible to get any purchase.
Although the school has always offered hope to aspiring players, this year's participants have even more to play for. Kieth Pelley, the Tour's new chief executive, looks like he is ramping up the prize money after only a short tenure at the top.
Many will feel fortunate to be in a fresh northeast Spain this week having got through the rigours of the first and second qualifying stages. They will also be feeling a little worn out. This is probably not the best preparation for the ultimate test of golf over six rounds.
These golfers are programmed to perform over four rounds of stroke-play. This eliminates the likelihood of any fortunate low rounds having such a big impact. In other words it is about generally steady play. The nature of the game is that no matter how well you are playing and how much “in form” you are, you always suffer a bit of a blip over four rounds.
The real test of a good player is how they deal with playing averagely and their ability to bring in a respectable score and not totally ruin the scores compiled from their better striking rounds.
From a mental perspective – and we are all getting used to the idea in the modern game that the mind is what really separates elite golfers once they are of a certain standard – having to raise their game and spirits come next Wednesday and Thursday during their fifth and sixth rounds under intense competition will be a feat too far for many.
Particularly so when you let yourself consider the consequences of “not making it”.
I am caddying in only the second Tour school of my lengthy caddying career. The last time was almost 20 years ago with Australian Peter Fowler, who managed to secure his card in Sotogrande and San Roque in the south of Spain. It is the type of challenge you embrace as a bagman with someone you particularly like and believe in. It is a mission you would probably only embark upon if you had a really good relationship with the player in question.
This is how I have ended up at PGA Cataluyna. I am here on a salvage mission with Tom Lewis, a youngish English player who won his third event as a professional at the Portugal Masters at the age of 20 some five years ago.
I had considered his early win a real sign of his talent and intent. Some people more skeptical than me warned that his victory had happened too soon. He had won too easily, without too much hardship. I had believed that Tom was going to flourish. A year later I realised that the skeptics were realists and that I had been the dreamer.
When you win in golf early it is easy to think only of winning again and not carrying out the fundamentals that got you into that winning position in the first place.
Playing badly can become a habit you naturally don’t want to get used to as much as playing well becomes habitual to golfers in form. Well, Tom got used to playing averagely, and his gradual decline in confidence seeped into his short game.
He battled with chipping for a few years and then putting, all while his long game was as good as the best strikers on Tour. Two putts a day makes a world of difference in professional golf. At one stage the question became not if he would get up and down if he missed a green but if he would actually be able to chip his ball on to the green.
Nobody feels sorry for Tom, including himself. It is the nature of a pro-active game that leaves you nowhere to hide or with nobody but yourself to blame if things don’t go according to how your optimistic self envisaged.
Tom has tried to prepare for this year’s school sensibly by playing his practice rounds last weekend and going back home in order to keep as fresh as he can for the six-round endurance test.
With the new incentive for school graduates to be able to surge back into the upper echelons of European golf by having access to the bigger events next year, it is a good time to be trying to secure your card.
This week isn’t about the money or the glory or the bragging rites or any other egotistical endeavours.
It’s simply about survival and giving yourself another chance to realise your true potential so you can consider your options this time next year about which $8 million event to compete in.
European Tour Qualifying School – how it works
Where is it? PGA Catalunya Resort, Girona, Spain.
When is it? November 12th to November 17th.
How big is the field? A total of 156 players will battle it out, including a former Major winner in South Korea's YE Yang. Some players have come through two stages already to get here, while others automatically go into the final stage if they had a European Tour card last season. Each player pays €1,800 for the privilege of going through six hellish days in Spain.
How many cards are on offer? The top 25 players and ties at the end of the week will get category 16 membership on the European Tour for the 2017 season. Depending on circumstances, players that qualify will usually get a minimum of 18 starts on Tour the following season.
How many rounds are there and is there a cut? A total of six rounds – 108 holes – are played to separate the top 25 players. The top 70 players and ties after four rounds (Tuesday evening) will make the cut and go into the final two rounds. All players will play two rounds on the Tour Course and the Stadium Course over the first four days.
How many Irish players are in the field? Michael Hoey, Gary Hurley, Kevin Phelan and Ruaidhrí McGee will all be hoping to follow in the footsteps of Dunne who claimed his card last year.