Q School, generally seen as the toughest test in professional golf, got under way this week with players taking to the fairways at, amongst others, The Roxburgh Hotel & Golf Course in the Scottish Borders, De Vere Wychwood Park in Cheshire, and Ribagolfe near Lisbon, Portugal. It’s the first of three gruelling stages that sift through hundreds of aspiring professional golfers, spitting out those who aren’t up to it (or just had a bad round).
With so many phases and rounds to contend, and so few Tour Cards on offer, the process is already a ‘long shot’ for the aspiring Tour golfer. The bad news for many is that the 2012 School offers the last opportunity for a direct route on to the European Tour. This time next year there will be no coveted European Tour Card up for grabs, just a season on the second tier Challenge Tour.
To be honest, this is really just formalising the situation. For a while now, even those lucky enough to get a ‘Card’ at Tour School have enjoyed a lower ranking category than those already established on the Tour, meaning fewer starts and only at the less prestigious events – those with a small purse and lower ranking points – making it virtually impossible to keep your Card for a second season.
Of course, there’s the argument that the best players will still make it. That’s true of the McIlroy’s of this world – who needs Q School?! – but for the journeyman pro trying to earn a living, the Tour is the Golden Ticket and the sooner they can get there the better in their eyes. But is that really for the best? Surely yo-yoing between European Tour and Challenge Tour doesn’t breed the same quality of player as a system that gradually progresses players through the ranks. That’s the view of the powers-that-be at least who now see the Challenge Tour as the perfect stepping stone for golfers needing to learn their trade and increase their chances of success when (or if) they get a shot at the big time. That’s a fair argument but for me, despite all the logic, there’s more to consider, something more romantic.
Q School is the pursuit of a dream, a dream of winning tournaments and making a living on the European Tour. Although for most this will always be, as the song says, dreaming the impossible dream, it’s none the less the reason they tee it up in the first place. Beyond all the years of practice, a commitment to Q School isn’t cheap either, costing around £1,500 to enter, and that’s before any travel and accommodation costs. All of a sudden this dream has become a much longer and more expensive journey, with a much less exciting prize on offer. Where’s the inspiration?
The other point to make is that it’s all well and good viewing the Challenge Tour as the perfect place to develop your skills but it comes at a cost. The prize money is incomparable with the main Tour (the leading player on the Challenge Tour has currently earned just shy of 100,000€, while the leading player on the European Tour has earned just over 2,800,000€) but the costs of playing on it aren’t vastly different today, with Challenge Tour events across Europe, India, Columbia, Kazakhstan and Kenya. With very limited endorsement opportunities, too, it’s easy to see how players will struggle to fulfil a competitive schedule and could justifiably feel let down by the system, not to mention broke.
So, 2012 marks the end of an era for the Tour and I wouldn’t be surprised if it marks the end of the dream for many players, too. I am not sure there’s an easy answer. All I do know is that this year’s Q School winners will have more to celebrate than those battling for their Cards next year. And just spare a thought for all those who will leave empty handed, out of pocket and with their dreams lying broken on the fairway or green of some hole that will haunt them forever. It’s a painful experience, trust me.