FUELLED by the likes of Peter Uihlein and Brooks Koepka tasting success on this side of the Atlantic, a record number of Americans have entered this season’s European Tour Qualifying School.
Eighty-six United States players – double last year’s total – are set to compete in eight first stage events across Europe in the next few weeks as around 800 hopefuls start the long journey in a bid to be taking part in the 2014 Race to Dubai.
Next week’s event at The Roxburghe near Kelso, where the majority of Scots will be hoping to safely negotiate their first hurdle, includes seven Americans, some of whom have a decent pedigree. Cliff Kresge, for instance, finished joint tenth in the 2003 US Open and has won three times on the second-tier Web.com Tour in the States, while Brendan Gielow was a member of the winning US side in the 2009 Walker Cup at Merion. His team-mates there included Rickie Fowler and Uihlein, who raised eyebrows when he opted to start his professional career in Europe but, along with Koepka, this year’s Scottish Challenge winner, has quickly vindicated that decision by graduating from the Challenge Tour to the main circuit.
“I think people must be looking at their success over here and seeing it as a potential route, especially as both Peter and Brooks chose to go this way deliberately,” said Mike Stewart, the Qualifying School director. “As they have both admitted, it has been good for them to be faced with new challenges in a new environment on a weekly basis and it is certainly healthy for the European Tour that others are deciding to try and follow the same route.”
The decision by more Americans to turn their attention to Europe in an attempt to get a foot on the ladder is also likely to have been influenced by changes to the PGA Tour Qualifying School. It no longer offers instant promotion to the money-spinning main circuit, with the developmental Web.com Tour now being the primary path to get a PGA Tour card.
“I think what has happened in the US with the restructuring of the Qualifying School procedure over there has played a part in the increase in Americans coming over here in the next few weeks,” added Stewart. “However, there had already been a general rise over the last two or three years and there is no doubt in my mind that the likes of Peter and Brooks, two nice young guys, have helped spread the word about what can be gained from playing in Europe.”
An event that costs £1,350 to enter, the first stage of the European Tour Q-School was played in one week at five venues in 2004 but has gradually grown over the last nine years. In addition to The Roxburghe, there is an event in Austria next week then two more the week after in England and Germany, followed by another two, this time in Italy and Portugal, before another one in England as well as a French event bring the first stage to a conclusion early next month. The second stage then takes place at four courses in Spain at the beginning of November, with the six-round final again being held at PGA Catalunya in Girona straight after that.
“The record overall entry, which includes first and second stage as well as the final, is 969 in 2008,” revealed Stewart. “The record for the first stage is 777 in 2011. We are more than that at the moment for this year and, although we always anticipate some withdrawals, it hopefully won’t be far off the previous highest figures.”
Twenty-two Scots, including double Northern Open champion James Byrne and one-time European Tour regular Steven O’Hara, are set to be part of a 77-strong line-up at The Roxburghe for a four-round test starting next Tuesday. The home contingent also includes three players entered as amateurs – Glenbervie’s Graeme Robertson and Fifers Scott Crichton (Aberdour) and James White (Lundin).
Free to choose where they can play, Scots will also be among the hopefuls at some of the other first-stage venues. Former Scottish Amateur champion Michael Stewart is heading to Wychwood Park near Crewe the week after next, as are two of the Saltman brothers – Elliot and Zack – and Neil Fenwick. Paul Doherty, meanwhile, is due to be in the field at Golf d’Hardelot in France in the first week of next month, when his older brother, Jack, will join former British Boys’ champion Jordan Findlay as well as Ross Kellett and Paul Shields at Frilford Heath.
US-based Europeans encouraged to support ‘home’ events
A decision by the European Tour to try to make its US-based members commit to at least one event in their home country in a season has been met with a mixed response.
The change, approved by the Tour’s tournament committee, is aimed at trying to strengthen fields in Europe and any European player failing to fulfil the new requirement will have their mandatory minimum number of tournaments to retain Tour membership increased from 13 to 15.
But, while Martin Kaymer, Europe’s match-winning hero in last year’s Ryder Cup, has described the change as “brilliant”, it has received a cool response from others. “I didn’t see the point in doing it, to be honest,” Lee Westwood told golfweek.com. “It was making a rule just for the sake of it, I think.” And Rory McIlroy added: “I think it’s just right at the minute. If they start to go a little bit too far, I think you’ll hear guys say it’s too much.”
News of the change emerged on the back of both the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles and ISPS Wales Open at Celtic Manor having weak fields.
Keith Waters, the Tour’s chief operating officer, said: “Together with the tournament committee and certain players, we have been discussing changes to the Tour regulations, one of which is an incentive for players to support their national events. This regulation will be in place for the 2014 season.
“This will help us not only sustain the quality of our fields around the world, it will also maintain the economic, commercial and media value of our tournaments.”