Neil Fenwick is chipping away

Neil Fenwick at Montrose Links. Picture: Kenny Smith
Neil Fenwick at Montrose Links. Picture: Kenny Smith
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YES, the top can be tough at times. Ask Tiger Woods. But that fact hasn’t dented the allure of golf lower down the competitive ladder, as was obvious at Montrose last week.

The generally fresh-faced field which gathered at the glorious Angus links for the Eagle Orchid Scottish Masters was packed with young hopefuls, all striving to “escape” the EuroPro Tour – effectively the professional game’s third division – and make their way in an often debilitating but potentially rewarding world.

Neil Fenwick is one of those with designs on higher things. The 25-year old Scot, already a fully qualified PGA professional, shot level par for the only two rounds possible amidst the seasonal haar that so disrupted the scheduled 54-hole event and finished tied for 15th. For his efforts, he was paid £446.43. In other words, the Edinburgh-based former Dunfermline footballer – “I made the first team bench a couple of times” – probably broke about even for the week. The entry fee alone for every EuroPro Tour event is £275 (compared with the relatively meagre ¤45 it takes to tee-up on the European Tour).

“In many ways, this is a harsh tour,” says Fenwick, who made it all the way to the final stage of last year’s European Tour (division one) Qualifying School and so will play “maybe 10-12” events on this season’s Challenge Tour (division two). “There is little reward for consistency. Last year I missed one cut and had a few top tens. But, in all of them, I was tied with other guys. That made a huge difference to what I earned.

“It’s expensive. There’s the entry fee. Add in all expenses and it’s an average of £650 per week. So you need to be winning. But the big attraction is that the top five on the Order of Merit at the end of the year get promoted to the Challenge Tour. Without that, I’m not sure this tour would work. Not many would play. But it’s a stepping-stone.”

Fenwick, of course, had a taste of bigger things when his Tartan Tour status earned him a starting spot in last year’s Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles. It proved to be an experience that was, at once, rewarding, illuminating and stimulating.

“I was nervous and shot 75 in the first round,” he says. “It was all because I was so negative on the greens. It was all about three-putt avoidance. So on the second round I just ‘let it go.’ I went for everything, played well, shot 66 and made the cut on the mark. It was a great feeling to really know I could play at that level.

“Just being there has given me a massive incentive to make it in this game. The Johnnie Walker is only an average tour event. But I was blown away. I actually hurt my arm hitting so many balls. I was there on the Monday, dawn until dusk. And did the same every day, alongside guys like [Jose Maria] Olazabal. But that was actually terrible preparation. By the Saturday I was knackered. It was a great experience though, one that has only made me hungrier to get away from events like last week.”

Whether Fenwick – an exceptional ball-striker – has an overall game good enough to take him to the highest level remains to be seen. But he is going about things the right way. Not only does the former Baberton member have his PGA qualification to fall back on, he has a definite and well thought-out strategy. This year, in fact, is just the first half of a 24-month plan that will, hopefully, see him teeing-up with the big boys no later than 2016.

“From the dozen or so starts I hope to get on the Challenge Tour, my aim is to finish in the top 80 money-winners,” he explains. “That will get me a full card for that circuit and make me eligible for every event next year. From there, the incentive will be to make the top 15 on the Order of Merit and get my card for the 2015 European Tour.

“That schedule may change if I win early this year on the EuroPro Tour. If I do that, I would focus more on a top-five finish on the money list. That would also get me a full card on the Challenge Tour for next year. So I’m looking to win on the EuroPro and/or be top 80 on the Challenge Tour this year.”

Like so many others, Fenwick has quickly figured out that the qualifying school route on to the European Tour is an expensive, convoluted and, even if a card is eventually gained, frustrating business. Even the highest finishers from the school struggle to gain entry into many events. And that leaves those players with only a slight chance of making it into the all-exempt top-115 money-winners by the end of the year. If the whole process isn’t quite immoral, it’s close.

“Q-School is so expensive,” shrugs Fenwick. “The entry fee alone is £1,400. I did it properly, took a caddie and all that. In total, it cost me about £6,000. I invested everything I had won on the Challenge and Tartan Tours last year. And all I really got out of it was a pat on the back and limited status on the Challenge Tour [entry fee another £500]. Financially, it is hard.”

In professional golf the response to such arguments is always the same: “Play better.” But even improved form isn’t always enough. As it currently stands, the European Tour can easily be accused of running something not too far removed from a closed shop, a situation the current card-holders are unlikely to change any time soon. Turkeys, as they say, don’t often vote for Christmas.

“There are plenty of guys on Challenge Tour who are better than many on the main tour,” points out Fenwick. “But it’s not so much about getting on tour as it is getting those guys off. The system is set up to protect them.”

Still, no matter the height of the obstacles in his path, Fenwick remains confident of his ability to clear even the loftiest.

“I’ve played with enough good players to know I can compete with them,” he insists. “You need to be a wee bit gallus to make it on tour. There’s no future in hiding away at the end of the range. It’s a cut-throat business. Most players on tour don’t know who you are and care even less. And when you shoot 76 they all wish it had been 77. They are there to beat you.

“My game stood up pretty well at the Johnnie Walker. I didn’t feel out of place. I was longer and straighter than the guys I played with. But I couldn’t help but notice how good they all are with wedges. And they hardly ever take a chance. If they drive into a bush, they take their punishment and move on. They forget the bad stuff and hit what I call ‘experienced’ shots.

“Plus, the facilities are in place to help you. The range. The physiotherapy van. The equipment van. It’s all there. The players are spoiled. If you don’t get better after making it on to that tour you are doing something wrong.”