The European Tour divide – is it growing?

At around 3 o’clock one afternoon in mid-November a group of members were huddled around the computer in the professional’s shop at Welwyn Garden City anxiously waiting to see if Tom Lewis could regain his tour card at the European Tour’s Final Qualifying School in Spain.

Lewis is a popular figure at his home club so a huge cheer went up when he clinched his card although the celebrations were soon tempered by the realisation of the challenge he faces while trying to consolidate his playing privileges during the months ahead.

The simple fact is that a tour card is no guarantee of impending fame and fortune. Last season just nine out of the 27 graduates from Q School kept their cards and the survival rate for the 15 graduates from the Challenge Tour was the same with just five players from that group still having a full card for the 2017 European circuit.

The problem Tour School graduates face is they might only get 20 to 22 starts if they start the season slowly and they will not be in the new €7 million Rolex Series events but in tournaments offering prize purses of around €1.5 to €2 million.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 15: European Tour, Chief Executive, Keith Pelley (r) announces the Rolex Series with Rolex Global Head of Sponsorship and Partnership, Laurent Delanney prior to the DP World Tour Championship at Jumeirah Golf Estates on November 15, 2016 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Last season the average number of starts for graduates was 20.8. The fortunate few might also get the odd invite from a sponsor but that does not negate the fact they all need to produce some big finishes if they are to accumulate sufficient cash to reach the €250,000 or so needed for survival.

Lewis is a good example of that. Last year he made more cuts than he missed (10 out of 16) but with his biggest cheque being €16,290 he ended the season languishing in 170th place on the Race to Dubai and almost 60 places outside the safety mark which last year fell at 111.

His predicament was by no means rare. Another man acutely aware of the difficulties facing the lower ranked players is Northern Ireland’s Michael Hoey.

This five-time European Tour winner slipped out of the top 111 this year and after missing out at Q School he faces a season battling to make the top 15 on the Challenge Tour money list in order to secure another route back onto the main circuit.

European Tour divide

“The Challenge Tour graduates are at least ranked ahead of Q School when it comes to getting events,” Hoey told Irish colleague Brian Keogh before using veteran qualifier Ricardo Gonzalez as an example of problems all successful graduates will face.

“Ricardo was brilliant and he is delighted but he’s not going to get much with a Q School card. That’s the worst thing about it. He’s done all that work but he’s playing for 29 per cent of the money next year unless he gets a few invites. He will get 20-odd starts but they will be in the €1 million events so he has to play unbelievably well. Unbelievably well.”

England’s Matt Southgate did exactly that this season while managing to finish 56th on the money list but two thirds of his fellow 2015 graduates had to go back to school and out of that number only Laurie Canter made it back on tour again.

European Tour divide

The European Tour is acutely aware of the difficulties faced by lower-ranked players which is why it has introduced its new Access List. In simple terms the Access List is an attempt to level the playing field for the sizeable group of players who do not get into the big events.

Starting with the 2017 season the tour will operate two money lists concurrently. Players will retain their cards if they finish inside the top 100 on the traditional Road to Dubai or in the top 10 on the new Access List which will exclude all prize money won at the seven Rolex Series events, the Masters, the PGA Championship and the four World Golf Championships.

It is an interesting idea but only time will tell if it works and in the meantime Lewis and the other graduates know they must pull out all the stops to cling onto their cards.