Tuesday 25 July 2017

Walton resurfaces to chase his American dream

The Champions Tour is a valuable pension fund for a lucky few, says Dermot Gilleece

Philip Walton is currently in Houston, Texas, where he will take the first step this week in an ambitious attempt at getting through the Qualifying School for the US Champions Tour. The only Irishman to have accomplished this feat is Des Smyth, who blazed a trail by twice leading the qualifiers in Florida in 2002.

Walton's surprise move is typical of a player who has had a tendency to drop totally out of sight, only to leap back to prominence when least expected. Like in 2004 when, after five failed attempts, he unexpectedly regained his European Tour card. Then in 2008, he popped up again, this time as a qualifier for the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.

That was when he set his sights firmly on this week's assignment, fired by Smyth's success. In the process, he had to settle for a spell in golf's no-man's land, realising he couldn't simply dip in and out of the competitive scene at will.

"So I've practised hard and worked on my fitness over the last three years at The Island and on the beach," he said. "Trying to make it in the States has always been an ambition of mine and it was nice to be able to go there with the back-up of an exemption on the European Seniors Tour."

In fact, Walton, who celebrates his 50th birthday next March, is qualified on this side of the Atlantic where several Irishmen, Smyth included, have been competing for €9m in prize money this year.

As a winner on the European Tour, where he captured the French Open (1990), the Open Catalonia (1995) and English Open (1995), the Dubliner gains an automatic one-year exemption from next March. And, according to Andy Stubbs, managing director of the European Seniors Tour, career earnings in excess of €1.7m should exempt him for a further five years.

The rewards in the US, however, are substantially higher. And so is the qualifying standard. Smyth won a regional qualifier in Florida before going on to final qualifying in 2002 at World Woods GC where he won again, this time to claim one of the seven cards on offer. On that occasion, a 10th place finish by Eamonn Darcy wasn't sufficient to earn exempt status for the 2003 season.

With handsome pensions on offer and players more conscious than ever of maintaining fitness, the demand for places has become all the more intense. Again there are three regional qualifying tournaments and Walton goes into action on Tuesday at the highly regarded Woodforest GC outside Houston, where he will be joined by England's Barry Lane and Spain's Miguel Martin. A day later, two other qualifiers start in Orlando and Las Vegas.

Final qualifying is scheduled for November 14-20 at TPC Scottsdale, Arizona, where the field will include a number of current campaigners who have missed out on full exemption for next year, and others who wish simply to improve their status. Only the top five will receive full exemptions and the next seven receive conditional cards. Anyone finishing in the top 30 is eligible to try his luck in Monday qualifying for tournaments next season.

"It's tough, but I wish Philip the best of luck," said Smyth yesterday. "It's a tremendous opportunity, a second chance, and I hope he grabs it with both hands."

Walton is accompanied by his 18-year-old son, Rhys, who is free to caddie for his dad having taken a year out of school. And if all goes well, the pair of them will remain in the US to prepare for Scottsdale.

Christy O'Connor Jnr can claim credit for showing his countrymen the way in seniors competition in the US. In fact, he gained the distinction of joining CBS commentator Gary McCord as the only other player to win an event on a sponsor's invitation. This was in the State Farm Classic of 1999 in Baltimore, where he collected a career top prize of $195,000.

Then, on the way to what proved to be his most successful tournament year, he also captured the Foremost Insurance Championship in the US and the Senior British Open at Royal Portrush (€88,620). Smyth also had two American wins in the same year, 2005, capturing the SBC Classic ($232,500) in March 13 and the Liberty Mutual Legends ($382,000) in April.

"I realise the States can be a lonely place, but I've got quite a few friends here, going back to my time at Oklahoma State," Walton added. "Bob Tway is already on the Champions Tour and other friends from college, Jeff Maggert and Scott Verplank, will be coming through in a couple of years. When my game deserted me about 10 years ago, it was all about confidence. I remember the embarrassment of going to the Tour School for the first time (1999). I felt as if I shouldn't be there: the sense of failure was huge. But I've come a long way since then and I'm looking to next week as a new beginning."

From a high of €292,733 for the 1995 season, Walton's last prize money on the European Tour was a cheque for €5,162 in the 2008 Open Championship as compensation for missing the cut. Against this background and in the absence of any recent competitive form, his return to 72-hole tournament play will be a huge mountain to climb.

Yet one imagines that if it were somehow possible to extract it from the transatlantic ether, he could tap into significant support from his many friends and admirers. Battling the odds has always been part of the Walton appeal.

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