By Will Pearson, europeantour.com
at PGA Catalunya Resort
Italian Renato Paratore is on course to become the youngest winner in European Tour Qualifying School history after storming two shots clear at PGA Catalunya Resort with 18 holes to go at the Final Stage.
Paratore, the most junior player in the field this week at just 17 years, fired a superb five under par 67 across the testing Stadium Course in Girona on Wednesday to surge into pole position on 17 under after 90 holes, with Finland’s Mikko Korhonen the closest of the chasing pack, after an excellent 68.
Four-time European Tour winner Ricardo Gonzalez (70) lies a further two shots adrift heading into the final day alongside overnight leader, England’s Matt Ford (72), as the chase for a place in the top 25 and The Race to Dubai riches that it will bring nears its denouement for another year.
On another sun-kissed day in north-eastern Spain with conditions favourable for good scoring, the Stadium Course still proved a worthy adversary for the 78 men that made the cut.
The greenhorn Paratore, however, refused to be cowed, as he looks to best England’s David A Russell, who was 18 when he won the inaugural Qualifying School back in 1976.
The two-time Junior Ryder Cup star and Youth Olympics Gold Medallist began well with a birdie at the par four first to immediately erase the overnight deficit to Kent man Ford, but it was on the back nine that Paratore caught fire, reeling off three straight birdies after a chip in at the tenth.
Two further gains followed at the long 15th and par four 17th, and despite closing out with a three-putt bogey from the left hand side of the challenging last, the highly-promising young Italian was more than happy with his fifth round efforts.
“I played very well today – especially from the tee and the putter was also hot too,” said Paratore, who would become the first teenage winner of the Qualifying School since José María Olazábal triumphed at La Manga in 1985.
“The chip in on ten really got me going, and although I’m disappointed to finish the way I did, I still know it was a very good round.
“I feel good, I feel happy, so tomorrow I will just try not to think about things too much and stay calm, keep my mind clear, and see where I am at the end of the day.”
Paratore only turned professional following qualification from Second Stage at Panoramica Golf & Sport Resort last week and his impressive performance in Girona has shown all the portents for a glittering career in the paid ranks – one he says will be inspired by friend and compatriot Matteo Manassero, whom he met as a 13 year old training with the Italian national squad at San Domenico in the south of Italy.
“Matteo is my model, my mentor,” he continued. “We speak a lot, we are good friends and he called me before this week and told me just to play and keep calm.
“Seeing how well he has done as a young guy on The European Tour is inspiring and I follow him a lot. We have similar games with hitting it very straight, and he is amazing around the greens, so hopefully I can follow in his footsteps.”
Korhonen, meanwhile, put on an exhibition of tee to green golf on Wednesday, finding nearly all of the Stadium layout’s fairways and putting surfaces in regulation, on a day of pure hitting from the Finn.
The 34 year old Mäntsälä native is no stranger to success at PGA Catalunya, having gained his card here in three of the last four years. He only narrowly missed out on retaining his playing privileges with a 128th place finish on The 2014 Race to Dubai, but remains firmly on course for a return to golf’s top table come Thursday evening.
“Compared to yesterday, when I hit it very poorly, today I hit a lot of better shots and gave myself a few more birdie opportunities,” he said.
“My aims were simple: hit as many greens as I could and two-putt as many greens as I could and I managed to do that quite a bit.
“It’s a lot of pressure for everyone – me included – but I love it here. It’s a great golf course, I played well here this spring in the Open de Espana and it’s a great place to be.
“The layout of the Stadium Course is just pure, it’s beautiful, one of the best!”
With just one round left to run in the gruelling six-day examination, 28 players are currently on course to seize a European Tour card at six under par or better, including 2013 US Amateur Champion Matt Fitzpatrick (71) as well as former Challenge Tour Number Ones Andrea Pavan (69) and Espen Kofstad (72).
Also on track for a fifth successful trip to Qualifying School in the last seven years is 2013 winner, Spain’s Carlos Del Moral, who signed for a two under par 70 on Wednesday to climb into a share of 11th place.