Over the next seven days, 156 European Tour hopefuls will do battle over six rounds at PGA Catalunya in the hope of securing one of 25 European Tour cards available for the 2016 season.
Among them are Mark Foster, who has been an ever-present for the last 14 seasons on the European Tour; Soren Hansen, who has won over €9 million on the European Tour; Peter Heblom, who has made 465 appearances on the European Tour; and three former Ryder Cup players – Hansen, Jarmo Sandelin and Edoardo Molinari.
All 156 entrants have done well to reach this final stage of qualifying – 953 players entered Qualifying School this year – but close is nowhere when it comes to European Tour qualification.
For some, like the four finalists under the age of 20, it's a first shot at stardom. They will look to emulate British Masters champ Matt Fitzpatrick, who qualified last year and has earnt over €1.6 million this season. For others – there are 18 over-40s vying for a card – it's a last chance saloon.
In a world where the likes of Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth take home cheques for millions, these are the easily forgotten players who make up the rest of professional golf.
We spoke to one man, 40-year-old Sam Little, who spent 15 years fighting for a living on the European Tour, to find out what life is like when you're not one of the big fish. He won five times on the Challenge Tour, had two second-place finishes on the European Tour, beat Justin Rose 7&5 in the Amateur Championship, and once took home a single cheque for £227,000. But now, financial realities mean that he's hung up his clubs... possibly for good.
“At times, golf was no longer my passion, it had become my job,” he says. “I’d like to get back to where golf is my passion and the money takes care of itself, but at the end, along with a lot of other players, I was out there because it’s my job. Even though we enjoy it, it’s not about passion anymore, it’s about earning a living.”
After securing his A-levels, Little spent several years on the Challenge Tour, each year making the pilgrimage to Q School, before eventually securing himself a European Tour card for 2005. “My son was born three or four weeks after I got my card, so it was a perfect time for the family,” he says. But a Tour card isn’t an instant ticket to fame and fortune.
“The first couple of years on the Tour were very tough,” recalls Little. “You make mistakes, but you learn fast. You learn fast because you have to, or you won’t survive. At the French Open in my first year on Tour, I made a 10 up my last hole on the Friday, and missed the cut by one shot. That stuff haunts you. It lives with you forever. But it made me a better player.
“My first year on Tour, I was the last man to keep my card. I got up-and-down out of the bunker on the 18th at the final event of the year. I still remember it, clear as day. I had a four-footer downhill left-to-right and if I’d missed it I’d have lost my card. I think I kept David Drysdale out by £100 or something ridiculous.”
Such small margins are not uncommon. Each year, cards are won and lost by amounts that wouldn’t even buy you a dozen golf balls.
“The margins are so small,” says Little. “Watching the Ryder Cup, you had Stephen Gallacher, Jamie Donaldson, Justin Rose – those are guys I’ve played with. I know I can compete with those guys, so why am I sat on my couch watching it and not playing in it?
“It hurts to watch it, and it hurts to watch big tournaments in Europe when you’re stuck on the Challenge Tour. It’s a big comedown, going from the European Tour to the Challenge Tour. You go from playing in the BMW at Wentworth one year, to places like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan the following year, where you’re playing in front of almost no-one, for a tenth of the prize fund, pulling your own trolley. It’s basically like playing a swindle with your mates.”
“I don’t think I could play the Challenge Tour for another season. The kids on the Challenge Tour are all between 20 and 25 and living at home with their parents. I was talking about it with a few of the guys last week. The way we look at it is that if you’re on the Challenge Tour, you’re unemployed. It probably costs about £70,000-£80,000 a year to play, once you’ve covered flights, accommodation, your caddie and your spending money. I played the Northern Ireland Challenge recently and finished 28th. It was a really good event, but I won £1,000 and it cost me £800 to play. I’m slogging my guts out for £200, and I’ve got to pay tax on that. You could stack shelves in a supermarket for that sort of money. You’ve got to be right up there to earn a profit, and we’re not talking big profit.”
It is perhaps little wonder Little feels underwhelmed by the prize money available on the Challenge Tour compared to the crazy money available at golf's top table.
“It is extremely top-heavy, especially in America, but it’s like that in all sport," he says. "If you’re one of the best footballers, playing in the Premier League, you get paid a fortune. If you’re in the League Two, you’re getting paid a living to survive. It’s the same with golf. There’s money to be made, you’ve just got to shoot lower scores.”
From his Hertfordshire home, we make the short drive to The Grove, where Little practises three or four times a week. Straight out of the car, he rips a mid-iron that any of the world’s top 10 would be happy with. He does it again and again, with every club in the bag.
Watching him up close, it’s hard to see why he was forced to quit. “It’s not just hitting a golf ball,” he says. “It’s so many things. The mental side. Being happy at home. Being away from the family. All of it is tough. And not succeeding makes it even tougher. You start to think, ‘What am I doing? Am I wasting my time here?’ Mentally, I don’t think I’ve been as strong as I could have been.”
The prospect of a life away from playing professional golf in order to make a living is a frightening one for Little. “It’s a scary thought, contemplating something different to what you’ve done your whole life. I’ll miss it massively. It’s all I know and all I’ve ever done. I’ve been a golf pro since 1998. I still really love going away and playing, I really do. If I had endless pots of money, I’d carry on. But I haven’t. The last two or three years have been horrendous, scoring-wise and earning-wise. I’ve got a family to support and making ends meet is difficult. I’m skint, so I need to make some money. You’ve got to support the kids. I know I could live at home, do something else and be far happier. But I would still miss the golf side. When I’m doing well, there’s nothing better. But when you’re doing badly, it’s horrendous.
“Whatever happens, I won’t have any regrets. You’ve got to follow your dream. You’ve got to give it a shot. I just feel like I haven’t succeeded to my high standard.
“I saw a stat that the average length of time a player retains their PGA Tour card is a year and a half. So to play nine or ten years on Tour is something to be proud of, but I wouldn’t mind another nine or ten years. I really would like to have won on Tour. Finishing second twice is tough to take. I wish I’d won. That would make me feel a bit better about my career. Hopefully it’s not over.”