David Howell: Harsh reality at the bottom of the Tour

While the headlines focus on the success of Justin Thomas, spare a thought for those still scrapping to retain their Tour cards for next season – it’s a tough and often unforgiving fight.

Another star is upon us then. Justin Thomas has leapfrogged into the ‘star’ status category with his FedExCup win, five victories on Tour this season, including a Major, a score of 59 under his belt and still only 24 years old. The golf world has, all of sudden, bagged itself a handful of dominant players. Multiple season winners used to be a rare thing but not at the moment. Johnson, Matsuyama, Thomas, McIlroy, Day and Spieth are on top of the world – what a wonderful place to be.

As I watched the Tour Championship play out I couldn’t help but think about the other side of professional golf. At the top, the riches pour in. It’s smiles literally all the way to the bank. Watching these events you can see why people say, “$1.6 million in their pocket – not bad for a week’s work.” Of course, the sums are huge, but they are hard earned.

Staring down the barrel

Over in Vilamoura at the Portugal Masters, on the same day that Justin Thomas collected his $10 million bonus, players were coming down the stretch with their livelihoods on the line.  Marc Warren, 11 years on Tour, who has been staring down the barrel of losing his Tour card for a few weeks, pulled out the performance of his life in finishing second to guarantee his job for next year. To follow an eagle on 17 with a missed par putt on 18 would have been agonising. But as luck would have it, a poor drive from George Coetzee enabled Marc to take second place alone – enough to keep his job for next year. One shot worse and he would not have made it.

Playing golf under this sort of pressure is no fun. The difference in potential earnings from having a full Tour card to not having one at all is huge.  This year, the final event that decides the fate of the guys at the bottom end takes place at Valderrama. Some will have the week of their lives and keep their card. They will deserve their success for playing well in such circumstances. There is always pressure when you’re in contention to win a tournament, but pressure at the lower end is a totally different beast. It’s pure fear which is to be avoided at all costs.

Someone will end that week in despair, maybe one shot shy from keeping their tour card. You’ve got to feel for that player. That’s the harsh reality of professional golf. You don’t get paid unless you perform well. You pay your own way around the world and you gamble on your own ability.

The Dark Side of the Moon – The fine margins of professional golf

Saving Putt

We hear and read all about the star players, but the better stories are often on those we don’t get to know – the journeyman pro who has battled to reach the Tour; or the player who had lost his game and come back to succeed; the guy who’s earning a good living when nobody ever gave him a chance or the player coming back from an injury he thought he would never get over.

Being on Tour is a success in itself. Thousands set out to make it but in Europe only 200 people each year manage it. Yet that level of success guarantees no financial reward. For the vast majority, it will have been stressful beyond most people’s limit. The next time you watch a tournament, take a moment to consider the plight of the player who could be lining up the most important shot of their lives – a putt to keep their job. Now isn’t that a good story?