David Howell: Success and disappointment up close at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters

The regular European Tour season came to a close in Spain and I had a first-hand look at some players on the cusp of retaining their playing rights for 2018. It was success for some and a disappointment for others.

The Andalucia Masters at Valderrama effectively brought to a close the European Tour season, with only the Final Series left, culminating in the DP World Tour Championship. The race to keep their Tour card for the players further down the list came to an end on the iconic turf of Sotegrande on the southern tip of eastern Spain.

Whilst Sergio Garcia was thrilling his local crowd with another victory on home soil, edging out last year’s runner-up, Holland’s Joost Luiten by a shot, from a pros point of view the real drama was happening slightly further down the leaderboard.

I talked to Daniel Brooks at lunch in Italy just seven days before Valderrama, about golf and the Tour in general. I knew he wasn’t in a great position heading into the final week. For the first two rounds of the Andalucia Masters I played with Ashley Chesters, a rookie who has had a terrific year. He was just outside the mark he needed to keep his card, by just a few hundred Euros. Jamie Donaldson, who three years ago hit the winning shot in The Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, was also battling to save his full Tour card.

Valderrama is a unique challenge. It’s brutal when you stray offline. The greens are tiny and the rough around the greens is penal. If you come into the tournament short of confidence it’s a harsh course to play. I can vouch for that,  personally. Just take a look at my scores. So to play Valderrama under the strain of having to perform at your very best to keep your job is an immensely stressful task.

On Friday my race was run in terms of making the cut by around the 11th hole. But I was more than mindful of keeping the atmosphere in my group as cheerful as possible. Ashley Chesters was playing for his livelihood. He was close to the cut line in the second round. As bogeys came his way everything looked to be slipping from his grasp. When we walked onto the 18th green I could see from the scoreboard he was 5-over par. The cut looked like being 4-over. Ashley had a 30-foot birdie putt to keep his job.

As I strolled past him I suggested that he should knock it in the hole. He gave it a good roll but he ran it nearly five feet by. I thought it was all over for Ashley, but my caddie told me the scoreboard was wrong and that he was only 4-over. Now Ashley was staring at the longest five-feet putt he had ever faced. If he three-putted he’d lose his Tour card which would hurt him forever. I felt nervous for him. But he slammed it right in the middle, a braver putt I haven’t seen in a decade. Ashley kept his card with a beautiful weekend’s golf.

Daniel Brooks needed to finish in the top four to keep his card but he hadn’t finished in the top four all year. He had only just made the cut, but his slim hopes were still alive. Then Wham-Bam! A 64 on Saturday shot him into contention with the round of his life – or was it? Maybe it should be his level-par round on Sunday, which took the young Englishman to third place and ensured that Danny kept his job.

Jamie scored a 4-under 67 on Saturday and a Herculean effort on Sunday saw him finish fourth to keep his card for next year – fifth and it would have been a whole different story. So, Jamie kept his job.

These are the real performances of champions in my book. Sure, Sergio won, and we are glad he did. He supports the event and the event supports his charity. An event in Spain without Sergio wouldn’t feel right, but the stars of the event were playing for a different trophy, a little plastic card that says EXEMPT on it, which comes with the right to play against Europe’s best players for another year. That little card is literally worth its weight in gold.