Colin Byrne: Nerve-jangling grind of Tour School no place for faint-hearted

‘Our group was starting to unravel at an alarming pace, Lewis at high speed, Pepperell down to 13 clubs and Richard McEvoy slowly bleeding bogeys with no emotion at all’

I have only put myself through this Tour School saga once before and had clearly forgotten why I had left it this long before revisiting this cauldron of drama that is unparalleled in the professional game.

I don’t intend coming back.

It wasn’t such a bad experience until I got to the back nine or hole number 100 of the marathon golf school at PGA Cataluyna on Thursday afternoon, having taken a laborious two hours and 40 minutes to battle around the front nine.

I was becoming aware of the unhealthy amount of time we had spent on this golfing arena. I was also aware that 25th position, the amount of cards they award to their successful graduates of the European school of dreams, was just three bogeys away from our nine-under total having bogeyed the 99th hole, our ninth, in the final round.


My player Tom Lewis had warned me that he was feeling kind of fidgety before we began our round. I needed to keep a leash on him now that the finishing line was in sight. If it was a sprint we were running he would have won by a wide margin, he was moving so swiftly. Many golfers under pressure walk at an astonishing pace, which means of course the mind is probably moving as quickly. Not good.

Unfortunately the leaderboard not only showed the frontrunners but more importantly what score was 25th, the magic number to secure your playing rights on the European Tour.

Our policy had been to be aggressive and play to win. This was the idea from hole one last Saturday. Seeing the bottom line seemed to have a detrimental effect on Tom. We started to miss fairways and greens, our objective had tacitly changed from winning to scraping though with some sort of future on Tour.

Intense pressure

We were playing with

Eddie Pepperell

, who had finished 113th on the Order of Merit this year and missed out on his automatic card by €2,596. He was well within the cut-off point but was naturally still feeling intense pressure.

I had sensed this but it became patently obvious on the 14th when he hooked his three iron off the tee and it looked like it was heading for the trees. His ball got a friendly bounce and ended up in the fairway trap, his three iron got an unceremonious hurl deep into the forest beside the tee. It’s still there as far as I am aware, despite the scavenging of a couple of spectators who figured they could use a Taylor Made three iron with a stiff shaft, even though Pepperell felt he couldn’t.

Our group was starting to unravel at an alarming pace, Lewis at high speed, Pepperell down to 13 clubs and Richard McEvoy slowly bleeding bogeys with no emotion at all.

I have been fortunate enough to have won a US Open with Retief Goosen and been with Edoardo Molinari in some finger-gnawing victories in the Ryder Cup.

I’ve been at the core of many other pressure situations to win events, make cuts or simply make unlikely pars, but this was getting more intense than any of those previous high-alert experiences.

Tom was trying to save his career and he was leaning on me more than ever in order to do so.

We hit the wrong club off the 15th tee and went into the fairway bunker instead of laying up short of it; there were words before Tom sped off in overdrive to assess the damage. Players can hit the ball extraordinary distances when adrenaline is flowing, clubbing becomes very tricky,

Tom had hit a very high percentage of greens all week long, it had been easy scoring. Until now, the denouement, the final reckoning, the pressure pot of all or nothing was taking hold of him and not letting go.

He missed the 16th green by a whisker and had to make a five footer for par. Phew. He missed the 17th and had to make a four-footer for a steely par. Meanwhile, McEvoy had to be transported back to the tee having hit his tee shot out of bounds. It was time for grind, grit and grimace.

Icy cool

Having snapped his tee shot off the 108th hole, McEvoy needed to make a six foot putt on the last green to post a closing 76 and finish on five under and 25th position, securing one more year on tour. I was trying to contain myself with relief for him when he did, he was icy cool. I think he had been through this before.

As a veteran on tour you can usually make a good guess at a player’s score by the way they walk into the locker room having signed their card. After our final round we headed straight back to the on-site hotel as we had done all week post play, for a sit down away from the scrutiny of the clubhouse.

There was a gathering at the table beside us; a player, his wife and parents. They all sat in total silence for the half an hour that we were trying to contain our joy at having survived the school.

They looked at their phones, at the ceiling and at the floor without a word or any eye contact. I couldn’t guess the score but if you didn’t know what was happening at PGA Cataluyna last Thursday you would have thought that a tragedy had befallen the lugubrious family seated in silent mourning beside us.

You can talk about Majors and Ryder Cups and the miraculous million dollar tournament victories, but until you have endured a marathon tour school golf session and the pleasure and pain of it all, you have no concept of what it is like for the average professional to make a living out of this ruthless game.

Colin Byrne

Colin Byrne

Colin Byrne, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a professional caddy