Battling Q School anxiety: ‘I’m playing to a raised green made of concrete’

Golf News

Mark Townsend is down in Spain, making his debut at the European Tour's Qualifying School, and it didn't disappoint

“I dreamt last night that I was doing well in a tournament and on the back nine I made a couple of long putts at 13 and 14. Then I realised I was using a belly putter and I was still anchoring so I had to DQ myself. Even for that one is a bit strange.

“My favourite one though is that I’m playing to a raised green of about a yard and the green is made of concrete and it’s about two yards in diameter. And I’m chipping off more concrete.

“That’ll wake you up…”

If you don’t already, you would like James Heath. And the reason for the anxiety dreams? He is at Final Qualifying battling away for one of the European Tour’s 25 golden tickets.

This is my first time at Q School, it’s something I’ve read about and tried to imagine almost since its inception in 1976 but I’d never experienced it until now.

First impressions were that this is so far removed from a tour event. The only sign I saw was at the entrance to the Lakes Course at Lumine, there’s nothing on the surrounding roads, the car park is packed with similarly-sized minuscule hire cars, most players have a stand bag, there are no local caddies, every girlfriend seems to be wearing leggings and, everywhere you turn, there are players who have been regular winners on the main tour.

Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, who has spent the last few years in the States, has Alvaro Quiros on the bag and they account for 14 victories between them. Otherwise, within a few spots on the range, are Johan Edfors, shirt tucked out of his trousers in trademark fashion, and Simon Dyson.

Further down the line is the champion in Abu Dhabi as recently as 2015, Gary Stal, then there is Tom Lewis and Alejandro Canizares, as well as small chunks of the last few Walker Cup teams and what seems like an endless conveyor belt of fresh-faced Scandinavians.

And the majority of the players are knackered. Either done in from battling to chase down a card for the European Tour or from trying to retain their original one.

But knackered doesn’t butter the parsnips. This week requires even more patience, endurance and backbone than regular weeks on tour – this is all about getting through six rounds and, by the end of it, ideally finishing inside the top 10. All the talk is about the leading 25 but 10th and ties are where the real starts lie for 2018.

Making up Heath’s threeball are Sebastien Gros, of France, and Germany’s Sebastian Heisele. Nobody likes generalisations but here you go anyway – Gros is just about the most archetypal Frenchman you could ever imagine; straight backed, smokes like a chimney (probably Gitanes), immaculately turned out, has a healthy line in expletives and even managed to look elegant and distinguished whilst relieving himself halfway up a rocky embankment. And is here after losing his card on the main tour.

Heisele is a giant of a man and is in Spain courtesy of finishing one spot away from progression from the Challenge Tour less than two weeks ago. You might know his name from his third-place finish at the KLM Open this year.

So they can all play a bit but, to my eye and hopefully despite my bias, Heath is the one to watch. On the 1st tee he backs off briefly to touch knuckles with Liam, his caddie and a mutual friend, a little sign to one another to say ‘let’s do this’ before producing an ideal held-off 7-iron into the crosswind. Knowing what good mates they are and how they’ve been there for one another in recent years I get a little choked myself. He hadn’t even hit a shot by this point, and we’re up and running from the 10th.

James Heath

I had fully anticipated to move around between a few groups after a time but, with Heath putting on an exhibition of ball striking, I couldn’t bring myself to leave them. If you are unaware of Heath’s past have a look at the winning scores in the Lytham Trophy – the competition has been played for since 1965 and nobody has got within six shots of his four-round winning aggregate of 266 in 2004.

His total was five strokes better than the 271 posted by Tom Lehman when he won the Open eight years before. The 34-year-old missed one green all day, tee shots into the wind were dealt with by a little trapped draw, which was the most exquisite sight all day long, but the putts weren’t dropping.

And then they did…

All of this could all have been so different.

After a long season on the Challenge Tour and a young family at home Heath was still debating whether to come and play before finally deciding last Wednesday: “I wasn’t in two minds, more like 13, so I came with the mindset that if I didn’t fancy it I could just go home. But then Liam was coming out so that forced my hand.”

James Heath and caddie Liam

A ‘flat’ opening 72 preceded hitting three balls off the drivable 12th tee (their 3rd) the following morning and the general thinking was more on when the next flight home was rather than the hole in hand. But they found the first ball, saved par and things turned from that point forward. The energy kicked in, helped by four 3s to start the front nine in 4-under, and things were looking up.

More putting work until near darkness on Sunday and, a day later, there were four birdies in the first five holes of their back nine.

At this point I am on the verge of spontaneously combusting, having to hide behind enormous pine trees to punch the air while constantly refreshing a leaderboard that won’t stop moving for another three and a half days and messaging fellow friends at home. He is now tied for 7th.

But this is Q School and there will be a few hard knocks and, with the wind in their faces to complement some tough holes, the handbrake is gently applied and a couple of bogeys are added to the red figures.

But it’s a four-under 68 and it’s eight steps forward on the leaderboard. With Liam going back to his real life and work in the morning, Heath’s brother Mike will take over on the bag. Halfway there and so far so good.

They, and 148 others (seven players have now withdrawn), go again in the morning…

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