Harrington’s achievements transformed Ireland’s status in tournament golf
A classic November image came from breakfast at a hotel on the Costa del Sol. It portrayed a brave but financially challenged young hopeful, slipping slices of ham and a few bread-rolls under a morning newspaper for sandwiches which would save him the price of a meal later in the day.
This was often the lot of competitors in the European Tour’s annual Qualifying School since its launch in 1976. Widely considered to be the game’s toughest test, its future is now in doubt due to the far-reaching impact of Covid.
In the absence of a school this year, I’m informed that a “safety net” structure has been added to the Tour’s exempt category for the 2022 season. Among other things, it means that a new top-110 will be recognised along with the top-20 from the Challenge Tour, where Michael Hoey is involved this weekend in their season finale.
According to the Tour: “Those existing, ranked members not making the top 110 will be re-ranked based on the 2021 Race to Dubai, but with safety nets established within the structure to restrict the movement downwards within the category system.”
Current planning is to restore the school at the end of 2022, “provided there is not the kind of disruption we have had in 2020 and 2021”. A more likely prospect, however, is that they will feel obliged to follow the lead of their counterparts on America’s PGA Tour, who have abandoned the process in favour of direct qualification from the Korn Ferry Tour.
All of which prompts memories of some remarkable stories from tour schools over the years, even one involving Jack Nicklaus. It seems that in 1997, the golden one was caught “bear-legged” when caddying for his son, Gary, at the PGA Tour School at West Palm Beach. By wearing shorts, Nicklaus was in breach of the tour’s dress code.
And to cover his embarrassment, he donned rain pants until wife Barbara showed up with a pair of slacks. Meanwhile, Gary failed to help dad’s mood by shooting a 78 which wasn’t good enough to get him through to the second stage.
Then there was the unique distinction of Birr’s Richie Coughlan, who turned professional after the Walker Cup matches at Quaker Ridge in 1997. Having proceeded to gain tour cards on both sides of the Atlantic, he opted to play the 1998 season in the US, starting with the Sony Open in Hawaii. Sadly, he failed to retain his exempt status.
By way of reversing the process, American Mac O’Grady ended 1998 by qualifying for a European Tour card at San Roque. When asked to list his hobbies for the Tour’s 1999 handbook, he replied: “The search for agape love and the study of philologia.” Severe editing reduced this to “philology”, the study of languages.
Romantically described as a tortured genius, O’Grady brought the more basic assessment of a “large-scale pain in the ass”, from his fellow Americans. In the event, his final round of 71, compared to a dismal 80 from the much-vaunted Justin Rose, allowed O’Grady to claim the 28th card at San Roque at the mature age of 47.
Why he did it remains a mystery, given that he entered only four regular tour events in 1999, missing the cut each time, and later failed to qualify for the Open Championship at Carnoustie. Mind you, he was notoriously unpredictable, going through various stages of the US Tour School a record 17 times before eventually gaining a card in 1982.
He then made the top-20 of the 1985 money list; won the 1986 Greater Hartford Open and the 1987 Tournament of Champions. By the end of 1989, however, he had lost his card again.
Remarkable ambidexterity prompted him to attempt playing the 1983 Chrysler Team event as his own partner, offering to play right-handed and left. Then, splendid coaching skills brought a stormy relationship with Seve Ballesteros, which ended in enduring bitterness for the American.
“I made a lot of sacrifices and a big commitment to help him, but he broke my heart,” he exclaimed dramatically at San Roque. “Now, if I had a sword I would cut off his head.”
On August 14, 1983, Philip Walton earned £1,060 as one of five players tied for 26th place behind Ballesteros in the Irish Open at Royal Dublin. It was enough money to secure him a European Tour card, which meant that a visit to the Qualifying School 16 years later, was his first since turning professional.
“I’ll never forget the embarrassment of it,” said Walton, who had been a Ryder Cup hero only four years previously. “The sense of failure was huge. I felt as if I shouldn’t be there. None of my European Tour colleagues bothered to phone me and frankly I didn’t expect them to.”
Paul McGinley’s thinking was very different when heading for the Tour School at Montpellier for a first and only time in 1991. “I had the get-out card of a degree in marketing,” he recalled. “This gave me a considerable sense of security when looking at guys who were committed to the long haul.
“They played with more pressure on their shoulders than I had. Sure, I was energised and determined to give it my best shot, but knowing I had an escape route was a great comfort.”
Walton could see no such light at San Roque, especially after closing rounds of 81 and 77 left him 11 strokes outside the critical mark. This was followed by four more crushing failures. Each time, he vowed never to go back again while aware, deep down, that he didn’t have a choice. Eventually, as a 42-year-old, he regained his card in 2004.
“When I didn’t hit practice shots to conserve energy that year, some of the young guys called me an old man,” said Walton. “I just laughed at them. After the hell I’d been through, I reckoned things could only get easier. I had found a new beginning.”
Sadly for him, it became something of a false dawn. In 15 events in 2005, he made just two cuts. And after getting into only three events in 2006, the school was removed as an option. Finally accepting that he could no longer compete at the top of the game, he never again endured the qualifying process. “Basically I felt like anyone would feel at losing a job they loved doing,” he reflected.
Since those days, Pádraig Harrington’s achievements have effectively transformed Ireland’s status in tournament golf. Which means that while fortunes fluctuate, possible changes in the Tour’s qualifying structure should hold no fears for our bright young aspirants.
A competitive confidence has emerged, which should ensure a clear sense of ambition rather than fear.