The unique and captivating nature of The European Tour’s Qualifying School Final Stage was encapsulated perfectly by a dramatic final day which produced three winners, tears by the bucketload and the emergence of some of golf’s most promising future stars.
For the first time in the history of golf’s great marathon, three players shared the winning prize fund – Ulrich van den Berg of South Africa, Spaniard Adrian Otaegui and the USA’s Daniel Im – with the first, second and third European Tour cards going in that respective order.
Typically for the six-round marathon at the stunning, sun-kissed PGA Catalunya Resort, however, much of the drama unfolded further down the leaderboard where the cut fell at seven under par, with four players climbing inside the crucial top 25 and eight suffering the crushing fate of falling out the other way.
Among the 27 to have claimed their cards were former Ryder Cup hero Edoardo Molinari, who had to endure a long and tense wait before finishing right on the mark, as well as Swedish teenage sensation Marcus Kinhult and Irishman Paul Dunne – who led The Open Championship after the third round earlier this year.
The emotion of the occasion was palpable throughout the day and the final round produced some heart-warming and life-affirming moments, most notably for Englishman Matthew Southgate – who was diagnosed with testicular cancer in July of this year.
It was a topsy-turvy and frenetic day which was given a fittingly bizarre ending as three players were handed the trophy after all finishing on 18 under par, with the European Tour cards distributed on the countback.
For van den Berg, it was also an emotive moment as he made a return to the top tier of European golf for the first time since earning his card here in 2007, before quitting the game in his rookie season following the death of his father.
“It was a long, hard slog for a 40 year old today,” said the Johannesburg player, who carded a four under par final round 68. “I last did this Q-School in 2007 and I got through then, but I forgot how difficult it is.
“I got off to a great start today and then went through the middle of the round where things got a little bit tight, but I made a great birdie on 14. Unfortunately I missed a seven-footer on the last to win the event outright, but it’s not about winning.
“It’s more about getting your card and I did what I could to get round here this week. It’s a great achievement for me because I’ve had a couple of hard years and this means a lot.
“It’s great to have the first card but I’m just so chuffed to have gotten a card at all and to compete out there with the best players in the world. I honestly feel vindicated for a lot of work that’s gone in from me, my coach, my close friend who has been here with me this week.
“My family and my wife have given up a lot for this to have happened, and my mother too, so it means a lot.
“After I last got my card, I started 2008 very nicely but unfortunately my dad got pancreatic cancer so I decided to quit The European Tour after about eight events and sat with him until he passed away. I got a medical exemption in 2009 but I was a broken man that year. I haven’t been back since and this is my first time here since then so it’s a great moral victory for me.”
Im was the only of the three victors who will make his debut on The European Tour as a full Member – having garnered plenty of experience on the top tier in the last two years despite his Challenge Tour status – and he was delighted to have finally made his breakthrough having come close on numerous occasions.
“It means a lot to me,” said the 30 year old Californian, who signed for a one under par 71. “I didn’t get my card in the Challenge Tour Grand Final in Oman and I didn’t want to come here but my manager secretly signed me up for this and I arrived, did what I had to do and I’m really relieved now.
“I’ve tried a few times here before and it didn’t go very well but now that I’ve finally done it, I’m just really happy. It’s the cherry on the top of a great year for me.”
Otaegui, meanwhile, has spent the past two season on The European Tour but has not yet managed to retain his card, coincidentally finishing 118th in The Race to Dubai on both occasions, and he was more relieved than excited to have passed the Qualifying School examination after carding a final round 68.
“It’s a good feeling,” said the 2013 Challenge Tour Graduate, who turns 23 on Saturday. “I was playing well all day, even if I started with an early bogey on the fifth. But then I told myself to be patient and made some good birdies on the back nine, so I’m happy with my week.
“Of course, I wanted to win, we always do. The main objective is to get back on The European Tour though. There’s a little bit of relief alright.
“It’s important to start every season well and get a good re-ranking, then it’s easier to get into bigger tournaments. Hopefully I can start the year well in Leopard Creek next week.”
Molinari, the older of the famous Italian brothers who starred together in The 2010 Ryder Cup, compared his four under back nine to the one which earned him a second European Tour title at Gleneagles in 2010.
The 34 year old looked to be down and out after a double bogey at the 14th, having teed off at the tenth, but he rallied to an immediate birdie at the 15th before carding the tied best score of the day on the front nine, his back nine, to register a three under par 69 and finish on the cut line of seven under.
Kinhult and Dunne played together and both displayed maturity beyond their years - not for the first time in the professional ranks - to card level par 72s and claim the 16th and 17th European Tour cards, respectively.
The biggest movers on an enthralling day on northern Spain were Welshman Stuart Manley, whose six under par 66 was the best round of the day and earned the 13th card, and South African Justin Walters, who climbed from outside the cut line to claim the ninth card courtesy of a five under 67.