13 Jan 2017

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

Travelling the world, playing golf at the greatest courses, being idolised by fans and earning millions. The life of a tour golfer seems like a dream come true. However, this is not the reality for the vast majority of them. For all but the small elite group at the top of the tree it’s a slog from week to week trying to make cuts to earn enough money to survive.

Endless travel costs, flights, cars, hotel bills, daily expenses and other operating costs – it all adds up to a hefty sum. And that’s without taking into account those players with families at home to pay for.

For those on the mini tours such as the EuroPro Tour, the Sunshine Tour or the Middle East’s MENA Tour, it can be a hand to mouth existence. The same can be said for the lives of most Challenge Tour players. Competition to get to the summit of the sport is fierce and for the lucky few who manage it, staying there can be even more tricky.

A friend of mine who knows all about both sides of the spectrum is European Tour professional Chris Hanson. I caught up with my fellow Yorkshireman at the tremendous European Tour Performance Institute in Dubai where he was fine-tuning his game ahead of the new season.

Chris Hanson

His off-season would have been much gloomier had he earned just €7,247 less in prize-money in 2016 – that was the difference between sinking a four foot putt to make the cut – or not. The 31-year-old nished 108th in the Race to Dubai, with only the top 111 retaining their cards.

“It was a funny final month of the season,” said Hanson who played 10 years as a journeyman on the mini tours and the Challenge Tour before making the big step up to the European Tour last season. “I had most people saying I’d probably done enough to keep my card but then about 30% percent were saying, ‘you probably need to make one cut’. The last three events were interesting because I missed a couple of cuts but then went into the Portugal Masters not knowing if I had to make the cut or not to secure my fate. Thankfully, I played nicely and did the job, so that was a big relief.”

Hanson’s 65th place result in the Portugal Masters earned him €4,600 in prize-money while at the Italian Open a few weeks earlier he finished tied 20th and claimed €31,680. If he had finished one place lower, in tied 21st, just one shot back, he’d have lost his European Tour card. As it turned out, he left Vilamoura with a smile on his face. Sadly, the same can’t be said for some of his fellow professionals.

EVERY SHOT COUNTS

“You saw some guys in Portugal who messed up on the last hole to miss the cut and, incidentally, lose their card,” he said. “For me I’ve always had the attitude that every shot always counts throughout the season. This is especially the case when you’re doing well in an event and are at the top end, so the drop off in money for one shot can be a vast amount.

“To only make it by just over €7,000 is pretty close and proves my case. It’s brilliant that I’ve got another year to show my worth on the European Tour.”

One of the stars to experience a torrid finish in Portugal was Eddie Pepperell. The 25-year- old had played for four consecutive years on the European Tour, finishing in the top 50 on two occasions – in 2014 and 2015 – to earn spots in the DP World Tour Championship. But he failed to make the coveted top 111 this year. The Englishman had a chance to win in Thailand in July but from then on he endured a rapid fall in the Race to Dubai, missing the next six cuts and entering the final event in Portugal in 110th place and on the brink of losing his card.

Pepperell shared the lead after shooting 64 on Day One but had a nightmare on Day Two as he bogeyed three of the last five holes to miss the cut by two. That meant he finished 113th on the Race to Dubai losing his elite level playing privileges. However, he wasn’t giving up his career in the top flight without a fight and went on to win his card back through Qualifying School at the first time of asking.

pepperell-after-qualifying-through-q-school

BOUNCEBACKABILITY

“The way Eddie Pepperell bounced back in Q-School showed tremendous character,” said Hanson, who gained the final card at European Tour Qualifying School in 2015. “It’s a surreal experience in that event. You’re not really focused on winning because you’re not playing for prize money. You just want to qualify in the top 25. It’s something you don’t want to be involved in very often because it’s so tough. Hats off to Pepperell and the boys who earned their Tour card the hard way.”

Paul Dunne is another professional who earned his full European Tour playing rights through the intense, six-round Q-School back in 2015, the same year he shot into the limelight as the hotly-tipped amateur who shared the lead in the final round of The Open. Like Hanson, the Irishman found out that life on the European Tour can be tough.

“I struggled last year because I couldn’t really plan a schedule,” admitted the 24-year- old who was also in Dubai to utilise Jumeirah Golf Estates’ ETPI ahead of the new season.

“I was constantly waiting until Tuesday or Wednesday to see if I was playing so I couldn’t take any time off.” Dunne also came close to losing his Tour card. He was in 111th place on the Race to Dubai going into the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, his penultimate tournament of the season. However, he played out of his skin when the pressure was on to finish 25th and earn €41,171. It turned out to be a spectacularly well-timed result as he retained his card by a mere €14,716.

“I’m hoping my performance in the Alfred Dunhill will be a building block for my future,” added Dunne. “It’s good this year because I have a full category so I can play a full schedule and plan breaks and time to see my coach and focus on the tournaments I want to play. That will be a big help for me. I can only try to keep progressing each day but it’s difficult when your routine is up in the air, which is the case when you are a reserve for a lot of events.”

Paul Dunne in action

Such a sporadic schedule is the result of players gaining their cards through Q-School (category 17), while taking the Challenge Tour route by finishing in the top 15 of the Road to Oman (category 14) offers a few more European Tour starts.

“It’s hard on the Challenge Tour because you are trying to survive on as little budget as possible,” said Hanson who played for four seasons on Europe’s second-tier tour and came within a whisker of a fifth season before clinching his European Tour card in 2015. “The experience definitely toughens you up. You have to rent cars with other guys, stay with friends or get deals on hotels, so to come on the European Tour and have the courtesy cars and luxurious hotels is unbelievable. Life is certainly made a lot easier for you.”

ONWARDS AND UPWARDS

Hanson will treasure his inaugural season on the European Tour that he fought so hard for. His highlights were being the overnight leader after three rounds in the Trophee Hassan II and also spearheading the French and Italian Opens at points. Having become used to being away from his loved ones for most of the season in his earlier days, he was delighted to have them for company last year.

“I was fortunate enough to have my family travelling with me last season so for my two young children to experience it all as well was brilliant. The hospitality goes above and beyond your expectations. There are things that you didn’t even know existed so for them to be able to travel the world and see these places and be treated in this manner is incredible.”

Golfers like Dunne and especially Hanson have worked tirelessly to compete at the top of their profession so it’s cruel if it ends so quickly once they’ve had a taste of the good life. Nonetheless, the margins are minute. Keep that in mind when you next see someone missing an easy putt at a tournament to narrowly miss the cut. It could be the difference between them losing their card or not. And that could be truly life-changing.

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By Scott Grayston

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