‘Tis the season of golf’s most brutal examination, both physical and mental: the dreaded Final Qualifying School. Those who have earned a tee-off time at this slugfest have either battled through a couple of regional qualifiers to make it or have slid down the greasy pole from the main tour, failing to secure their playing rights for the following season. Last week marked the very last Q school for the LPGA (Ladies’ Professional Golf Association) in America. After this year, access to the main tour will be through serving an apprenticeship on the Symetra Tour, the feeder tour to the LPGA tour.
I, for one, am sorry about this decision. Any time competition is stifled I am not a fan – and goodness knows, there is precious little in our sport now that is truly open. Annually, we hear heartwarming stories of players, their hopes and dreams, and we watch with interest as they pit their all, quite literally, on securing their ticket to the dreamland of the main tour in the world. We need more of this – not, I suggest, a dusty list of stats, scoring averages and the like, chronicling identical routes to the holy grail of a tour card.
Several storylines have caught my eye in this final of Final Q Schools.
The brilliant Bronte Law from Cheshire is in her final year at university in the States and has taken the jump to the pro ranks early in an attempt to bypass a year bouncing around on the Symetra tour. She failed to secure a full card but has qualified well enough to merit loads of starts and a player of her class should, hopefully, be fine. However, she will be juggling her first steps as a professional golfer with taking exams, writing a thesis and all that finishing your degree entails. Not ideal, but she feels her hand has been forced. It will be a tough year on multiple fronts.
Beth Allen, the engaging American, who won the Ladies European Tour Order of Merit before a ball was struck in the ultimate tournament this week in Dubai, is another to win through to the highest arena. She’s been there before, briefly, but now married and settled in Edinburgh, she is definitely “one of ours” and at 34 the Californian is planning on playing both tours next season. She’s another I will be following closely.
And finally, here’s a name to conjure with – Olafia Kristinsdottir. The 24-year old from Reykjavik is the first Icelandic player to win an LPGA card. She attended Wake Forest University, where she was inspired by fellow alumna Cheyenne Woods, Tiger’s niece, turned professional two years ago and played on the LET in 2016. She is a product of sound coaching structures introduced into the country nearly 30 years ago by the Icelandic Golf Union who turned to PGA professionals here to provide a lead.
One of those early trailblazing professionals was Pat Smillie, who also had phenomenal international success coaching the English women’s golf teams for 15 years or so. Pat loved her time in Iceland, travelling extensively from her base in Akureyri to small clubs in the northern part of the country. From May to September golf was embraced with an almost manic enthusiasm such was the appreciation for this new, available, golfing expertise. Pat remembers starting her final lesson of the day at 11.30 pm on those long, long summer days. The number of clubs has more than doubled since then and all memberships are full, with waiting lists.
Pat did manage to squeeze in some tournament play while there, winning the Arctic Open, a great event played over the weekend nearest to the longest day. It is open to amateurs, professionals, men, women and children, with the first round starting at midnight and the second round at midday. Many of the competitors use black golf balls – amazingly much easier to see in the bright sunlight.
Kristinsdottir was surprised to find herself a little like a pied piper at the Q school. She knew no one when she started her week but fellow countrymen came out of the woodwork to support her and she ended up having the biggest gallery of all the players there. She rewarded them with a second place finish, a precious card and that famous Icelandic celebratory clapping we learned about at the football in the summer.
The ink is not quite dry on 2016 but I, for one, just can’t wait for 2017.