NO-ONE had more reason to raise a wry smile than Andrew Coltart over the news that barriers were starting to come down within the PGA after taking over the management of the Optical Express Tour, meaning its members will have the blessing of The Belfry big-wigs to compete against non-members in six events in Scotland this season.
While Coltart may have enjoyed a fruitful career in the professional ranks, it was no thanks to finding obstacles in his way early on and, in truth, it remains an embarrassment to this day that he had to turn his back on Scotland and head to Sweden to give himself playing opportunities.
“I was in no-man’s land,” he recalls of a situation that reached the ridiculous stage when he was declined a request to play in the Scottish PGA Championship, even though he held a European Tour card at the time and was clearly one of the emerging forces in the home of golf. “All I wanted was to improve my game,” he adds. “I had proved I could win a card on the main Tour and felt I was worthy of a spot in a field of 130 people, but they knocked me back.”
The people behind it made that decision because the PGA was, without doubt, a closed shop at the time. Its members were very protective of spots in events staged by the seven separate regions in Great Britain & Ireland. Many of them still are, but the newly-branded PGA in Scotland, with the affable Michael MacDougall at its helm, is leading the way in those barriers beginning to come down.
For the last two years, the Northern Open, one of the main events on the Scottish circuit, has seen the leading Tartan Tour professionals locking horns with some of the country’s top amateurs. And, while that exciting change was, no doubt, instigated by Aberdeen Asset Management when it became the title sponsor, it’s a challenge the pros have embraced and deserve credit for doing so.
Due to the tough economic climate, the modern-day Tartan Tour only boasts two main 72-hole events – the Gleneagles Scottish PGA Championship and the Northern Open. The majority of the other tournaments are one-day pro-ams, which are certainly enjoyable for club members to play in but do little to help aspiring Tour pros to prepare themselves for four-rounders. “It’s a bit like sitting a driving test without actually going out on the open road,” observes Coltart.
Which is exactly why Alan Tait and Nigel Scott-Smith, two well-respected PGA pros, launched an independent circuit two years ago, the Xltec Tour becoming the Optical Express Tour and now, in the latest in a series of developments that are helping create a much better environment in Scotland than the one Coltart had to contend with, its events have been bolted on to the Tartan Tour this season.
It means extra playing opportunities for those who might already hold a card for either the EuroPro, Alps or EPD Tours – none of which, incidentally, were around when Coltart left the amateur ranks – and, equally important, the only opportunity for others to taste competitive action at the crucial development stage of their careers.
In getting that, they can find out quite quickly what should be the right path for them in terms of long-term prospects. Some will be encouraged to try and push on and keep climbing the ladder but, for others, it should provide evidence that no pot lies in wait at the end of the rainbow.
In truth, it’s a situation from which that the PGA can actually benefit because there is a good chance that some players will be encouraged to enter its training programme. In fact, that’s starting already. After a spell on the EuroPro Tour, Keir McNicoll is now a trainee at Gullane, where he intends to get the PGA qualification under his belt at the same time as he goes back to basics in a bid to find the game that made him one of Scotland’s leading amateurs before switching to the paid ranks.