Our team at the Qualifying School Final Stage bring you all the action from behind the scenes as 156 players battle it out for their cards for The European Tour 's 2012 International Schedule.
School of hard knocks
There are very few golf tournaments in the world which match the tension and drama of the Qualifying School Final Stage and, as in many years previous, there was once again late heartbreak for a number of players as one score from the final group had a drastic effect on their season next year.
Austrian HP Bacher was just inside the cut line, which was at the time at three under, as he entered the final three holes, and had he gone level par in the final three holes, the cut would have stayed at that figure, meaning Jason Knutzon, David Higgins, Cesar Monasterio, Philip Archer, Callum Macaulay, Marco Crespi, James Ruth and Chris Lloyd would have all made it to the final two days and, consequently, automatically earned cards for the Challenge Tour in 2012.
Bacher, however, finished with a flourish on what are arguably the three toughest holes on the Stadium Course, firing birdies at the 16th and 18th to move to five under, meaning the eight unfortunate souls on three under were nudged down to 71st spot and just missed out by one stroke.
It was heartbreaking for the group, possibly even more so for Ruth and Lloyd, who both shot six under par rounds of 64 to put themselves in with a shot.
The tension in front of the leaderboard, outside the clubhouse, was palpable and when the final scores were placed onto the board by The European Tour's scoreboard team, the atmosphere dropped amongst a portion of the waiting crowds.
Qualifying School, unfortunately, doesn't care much for sentiment but let's hope the eight men involved will come back stronger from the crushing disappointment.
A pair of aces for King Knut
What a showman Knut Borsheim is. On the third day at Qualifying School Final Stage, the Norwegian carded for what was his first hole in one in about eight years with a five iron at the 203-yard 14th hole on the Tour Course.
Unfortunately for Borsheim, nobody was there to celebrate it other than the players present, and they couldn't even see the ball drop.
So, with a large contingent of fans from the Norwegian Federation, including players and coaches, following the 24 year old on the fourth day, what was his solution to this quandary? He only goes and does it again, this time holing out from 200 yards on the Stadium Course's 16th hole to the delight of the crowds.
As the third day begins, all in the Media Centre are anxiously awaiting news of a third in a row. The pressure's on, Knut!
On Monday night Mike Stewart, the Qualifying School Director, hosted a dinner in the hotel for the 33 members of Tour staff in attendance this week. The ‘School dinner’ has become something of a tradition in recent years, and after Mike had made his introductory speech and toasted the continued success of the Qualifying School, the main action got underway with the arrival of the first course. Four fabulous courses and several glasses of refreshing vino tinto later, and the 33 hardy, happy souls retired to their rooms to get some beauty sleep…which in some cases is very much needed!
Dougherty’s down in the dumps
You had to feel for Nick Dougherty after his third round on Monday, as the Englishman poured out his heart following another dispiriting display on the golf course. Dougherty is one of the most cheery souls on the Tour, but even he was struggling to find many positives in a round of 75 which left him with the proverbial mountain to climb to make the 70-man cut on Tuesday. Little has gone Dougherty’s way in this most trying of seasons, and his bad luck continued with a hip injury which has hampered his progress this week. The likeable Liverpudlian won’t be short of sponsors’ invitations next year, but his interests might be better served by spending a confidence-building season on the Challenge Tour. Either way, there’s no doubting a player with his talents will be back in the big time before too long…
El Clasico's little brother
After the excitement at the PGA Catalunya Resort's hotel for the Barcelona-Real Madrid match, El Clasico's less famous little brother took place the following evening near Barcelona as Espanyol, the other Primera Liga side from the Catalonian city, took on Athletico Madrid.
The European Tour's four press officers were treated to a footballing spectacle at Espanyol's recently-built stadium, Estadi Cornellà-El Prat, after a hard day's work in the Media Centre.
While it wasn't quite the atmosphere one might experience at the Nou Camp on a Barca-Madrid derby day, it certainly produced the goods on the field. The 22 players on the field must have known there were four special guests amongst the crowd as they put on a superb show in a six-goal thriller.
Echoing the previous night's action somewhat, the game got off to a flying start as Espanyol bagged two goals in the opening eight minutes to the delight of the home crowd.
A plethora of stunning goals followed and Espanyol ran out 4-2 winners to overtake Athletico in the league table.
El Clasico fantastico
For the second year in a row, The European Tour's Qualifying School Final Stage coincided with the biggest game in Spanish club football, with Real Madrid taking on La Liga champions Barcelona in El Clasico.
There is a large Spanish contingent amongst the Tour staff this week and with three die-hard Barcelona fans present in the shape of The European Tour's Board of Directors Vice-President Angel Gallardo and Chief Referees José Zamora and Miguel Vidaor, it made for a rather boisterous atmosphere in the hotel's Conference Room as the game was shown on a (very) big screen.
All primed and expectant at kick-off, however, it took just 23 seconds for the three amigos to turn deathly silent, as Karim Benzema gave Madrid a shock early lead.
Things soon got better, however, and the goals from Alexis Sanchez, Xavi and Cesc Fabregas sparked wild scenes of celebration, as the normally ice-cool trio leapt from their seats, hugged, shouted and pumped their fists in scenes reminiscent of Brookline in 1999.
For the unfortunate minority of Real Madrid fans in the corner, both the screen and the wide space of floor in front of it, which was on three short occasions turned into a temporary dancefloor, didn't make easy viewing.
The European Tour's Qualifying School Final Stage is one of the biggest days of the year for those players involved as their season ahead, and sometimes their career, is determined by the outcome of one nerve-racking tournament.
It is also a huge week for the more image-conscious players as their personal head-shot photograph for the whole year, for use on The European Tour website and Media Guide, is determined by one snap.
Saturday was the big day for half of the 156-strong field as they stepped in front of the camera and faced their photographic fate.
While there are many players who casually stroll in front of the blue backdrop without a peep, there are always those few who prepare and analyse like they would a putt to win a major.
Some even request to take five minutes in the bathroom to make sure their hair is in perfect shape (here's looking at you, Mr Llloyd Saltman!) while there was a lot at stake for one player who informed us that his wife had been giving out to him all year for the poor standard of his current headshot!
The pressure was well and truly on for these boys so if you do happen to spot a nervous looking player in his profile head-shot on our website in future, now you know why.
One weigh or another
Another one of the administrative jobs which the players must fulfil this week is to update their biographies for The European Tour records.
It gives the players a chance to alter any details such as marriage, kids, change in sponsorship etc, while any players who have not been on our records must fill out all a form to keep us up-to-date.
There is one section which some players are extremely reluctant to change, however - that which states their weight.
Certainly there was one player, who shall remain nameless, who had a glance at that particular area on the page, before laughing and saying, "Ahem, yeh, I think that's pretty much correct", before walking off with a cheeky grin.
They say a good start is half the battle and if that's the case then Andreas Hartø is certainly a good bet fto succeed at this week's Qualifying School Final Stage.
Hartø, who emerged on the scene after winning the ECCO Tour Championship in 2010 as an amateur before following that up with a win two months later at the Roma Golf Open Presented by REZZA, shot a spectacular 59 on the Tour course during his practice round on Thursday.
The 23 year old also has form during competitive play at the PGA Catalunya Resort, having earned his European Tour card last year thanks to a sixth place finish at the Qualifying School Final Stage.
One can only hope that the Dane hasn't peaked too early this year!
Catalunya facilities make practice perfect
The players competing in the Qualifying School Final Stage this week were treated to an early Christmas gift as they arrived to a brand new practice facility.
The impressive complex includes a 2,000 square-metre putting green and chipping area, with five bunkers each containing different sand types (Augusta, St Andrews, Hawaii volcanic, PGA Catalunya Stadium Course sand bunker and Pebble Beach).
The area also includes a PGA Catalunya Tour Course grass bunker for practising and four greens with different grasses (bermuda, bent, Paspalum and poa), while the driving range has been upgraded with a new private tee for groups, target greens, bunkers and distance markers.
The standards at the resort are certainly sky high, and the standard of golf will no doubt follow suit.
Everything’s AOK at the PGA
While we wouldn’t expect anything less in what is a hugely significant week for The European Tour, the facilities afforded to the players at Qualifying School in Spain this week are second to none.
On arrival, they are greeted by a spectacular hotel at the PGA Catalunya Resort, where they can eat in the on-site restaurant, drink in the cosy bar downstairs or even play a spot of pool if the tedium of a long week on the golf course becomes too much.
But it’s outside the hotel where this place really comes into its own. The range, guarded by trees on one side, is quite spectacular while the two European Tour courses at the resort speak for themselves.
The Stadium course was recently voted as the 86th best golf course in the world by the Top 100 Golf Courses in the World Website.
Designed by Neil Coles, MBE, who is the Chairman of The European Tour Board of Directors, and Angel Gallardo, who is the Vice Chairman, the course comprises numerous features including plenty of dense forest, strategically-placed bunkers and lakes that come in to play on seven of the toughest holes.
The Tour course, meanwhile, is a shorter and slightly less difficult challenge than the Stadium course but is equally as picturesque.
It is dominated by pine trees and lakes and also features plenty of water hazards. There is no doubt that whoever comes out on top on these challenging courses will be deserving of their European Tour card.
Di arrives in Nick of time
One of golf’s most famous couples are present at the PGA Catalunya Resort this week as Nick Dougherty’s attempts to regain his European Tour card this week will be helped by the presence of his wife and former Sky Sports presenter Di.
The pair will soon be celebrating the first anniversary of their marriage having wed on New Year’s Eve 2010 at St Andrew’s in Scotland, the scene of his 2007 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship victory.
Nick Dougherty has been struggling for form of late and anyone who remembers the interview between the married couple on Sky Sports after he shot a superb 63 at the Omega European Masters in September will be hoping that they will be having a similar celebratory chat come the week’s end.
Everywhere we go, we always take the weather
While the sun was full in the sky on the morning before the opening round of Qualifying School, any players and staff that have been here before will know not to get carried away with thoughts of a sun-kissed week at the PGA Catalunya Resort.
With the tournament taking place so late in the year, it can sometimes fall foul of some unfortunate weather.
Last year the tournament ran over an extra day after frost affected some of the morning play during the week. The forecast is certainly more positive this week than it was last year so here’s hoping any Spanish White Christmas holds off for the time being!