AS the summer becomes a distant memory and the days begin to shorten to the length of a despairing sigh, it can only mean one thing: the Qualifying School season is upon us again.
All across Europe, a varied band of golfers, from starry-eyed amateurs to professional has-beens, never have-beens and never will-bes, have forked out the £1350 entry fee in the often misguided hope that they will be rewarded with a lucrative place on the European Tour.
For those involved in this golfing marathon, the anguish-laden, nerve-jangling Q-School is, quite simply, about as much fun as getting a crack across the shin with a 7-iron.
Some players have described the process as the “longest job interview of anybody’s life” while others, who have tried and failed, colour their description of the ghastly contest with the kind of foul language that would get them barred from a squaddie’s reunion.
Since its inception back in 1976, the Q-School has been held towards the end of each campaign to establish which players, not otherwise exempt, will earn their playing privileges on the tour.
The journey is far from easy. A four-round first stage is followed by a four-round second stage before a six-round final in December brings the whole exhausting affair to a frenzied conclusion.
More than 800 hopefuls enter the fray at this early phase -- stage one alone brings in upwards of £1m to the tour’s coffers -- but only the leading 30 and ties in the final will gain a place at the top table. A player who successfully overcomes each hurdle and earns a golden ticket -- a rare feat -- will have slogged his way through 252 holes under the most intense pressure.
This week in our own backyard, the rigorous links of Dundonald in Ayrshire plays host to one of eight Stage 1 shoot-outs taking place throughout the UK and Continent of Europe during the next month.
There are a total of 49 Scots involved in the scramble as they set about chasing the ultimate dream. For the vast majority, though, it will be a fruitless quest. The thought of ‘maybe I can make it this time’ keeps driving these players on but many of them have been thinking ‘maybe I can make it’ for years without any sign of progress.
It truly is a tough school and trying to gain a decent foothold on the professional ladder is singularly difficult. Just ask Kevin McAlpine, the former Scottish matchplay and strokeplay champion, who is in action at Dundonald this week.
The 27-year-old son of the former Dundee United goalkeeper Hamish joined the pro ranks last year after a stellar amateur career but, like many, has found the transition onerous. “It’s been harder than I expected,” admitted McAlpine, who has cobbled together a limited schedule that takes in the odd EuroPro Tour event and a couple of tournaments on the Scottish-based Optical Express circuit.
“I never thought it would be so stop-start. It’s fine if you’re playing the Challenge Tour and are getting four rounds every week but even the EuroPro Tour is just three rounds and it’s not the same. You have to really be on the Challenge Tour as it’s very hard to break through on the lower tours. It can become a bit of a vicious circle. You don’t get to play and when you do, you don’t play well and the confidence starts to go as well as the money. There are plenty of us in the same boat.”
This particular boat is becoming larger and fuller. Year after year, another wave of Scots hopefuls take the professional plunge but find themselves eking out an existence in the lower tiers of the game. The likes of the EuroPro Tour, the EPD Tour and the Alps Tour all offer progression to the Challenge Tour through their respective rankings.
But if you go on to these circuits, it’s critical that you make your mark as quickly as possible and keep moving up the order.
With lower prize funds, yet high expenses, these are not environments you can hang about in for a few seasons. They are tours for winners and designed for a short stay, not a long haul.
The fact that there is such an abundance of satellite tours and mini-circuits on offer these days means there is an increasing number of players making the pro switch. McAlpine did it with a glittering amateur cv yet there are others, with hardly any pedigree in the unpaid game, who make the move.
If you can’t compete at the top end of amateur golf, though, what chance do you have of making it in the cut-throat world of the pro scene.
The Qualifying School provides another, expensive, opportunity to make some inroads.
Come the end of the week, though, the pass marks will be few and far between.