Duncan Stewart could have done with the two good pay-days rookie professional Connor Syme has enjoyed in recent weeks. Put it this way, they would have left the 33-year-old in a much healthier position than he finds himself for his final throw of the dice at the end of a season-long battle to try and hang on to a European Tour card.
It’s not quite win or bust for Stewart in the Andalucia Valderrama Masters, which starts today on the Costa del Sol, but almost. The Grantown-on-Spey man needs to finish no worse than joint-second to climb into the all-important top 100 in the Race to Dubai on Sunday, when the regular phase of the season concludes.
“There’s always someone who saves their card in the last event – and I’m hoping that’s going to be me this year,” said Stewart, who has left himself in this unwanted position after a topsy-turvy campaign as one of the 15 Challenge Tour graduates from last season.
The Highlander missed the cut in his first five events before gradually finding his feet. He picked up close to £58,000 for a top-20 finish in the Irish Open at Portstewart in July before enjoying another profitable week for getting into the top-ten in the European Masters in Switzerland.
However, five missed cuts in his last eight events were not what the doctor ordered. As a consequence, Stewart is sitting 129th on the money-list. One of those untimely early exits came in the Portugal Masters, which saw Syme tie for 12th on his pro debut. Another was in the Dunhill Links, where Syme excelled again to finish in the top 15.
“It’s been an up-and-down season and I would have liked to have been going into this event having secured the top 100, but there’s still this week left to achieve that,” said Stewart, who won in Madrid last year on the Challenge Tour as he earned his first full crack on the main circuit.
“I’ve played some good golf over the summer, but I’ve been far too inconsistent. I’ve only had one top-ten all year and that’s where you need to finish if you want to keep your card. It was a bit disappointing not to get in the Italian Open last week as it was such a big event but, unfortunately, no-one from last year’s Challenge Tour got in.
“I’d say I probably deserve to be where I am. I’ve played 27 events, which is more than enough to get into the top 100. But, if I do play well this week and get into the top 100, I’d say I deserve it just like the other 99 guys who do. There’s no-one who finishes inside the top 100 who doesn’t deserve to be there as it’s all performance related.”
Stewart, who is now based in Kirkliston, close to Turnhouse, where he practises when he’s at home, was particularly disappointed with his first-day performance – an 82 at Kingsbarns – in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. Equalling his worst score of the season, that effectively cost him his chance of securing the sort of cheque that could have secured his fate instead of leaving himself sweating right until the bitter end.
“The first round at the Dunhill was very disappointing, frustrating and, to be honest, quite embarrassing, especially when it was at the easier of the three courses,” admitted Stewart, who a year ago was preparing to partner his close friend and former Jacksonville University team-mate, Russell Knox, in the World Cup in Australia. “I just wasn’t at the races all day with my entire game being very, very poor.”
This week’s test at the venue for the 1997 Ryder Cup is notoriously tight. “It’s a course that should suit my game as it’s more about accuracy and position rather than bombing it off the tee,” observed Stewart, one of seven Scots teeing up in an event being hosted by Masters champion Sergio Garcia and also featuring world No 5 Jon Rahm.
For Stephen Gallacher (77th) and Scott Jamieson (80th), the goal this week is to advance to the upcoming Final Series, while it is indeed win or bust for Scott Henry (199th) and Craig Lee (247th) in their card quests. On-form Syme, who secured a late invitation, and David Law complete the tartan contingent in the £1.8 million event.