The fastest way to get playing status on the European Tour is to make it through a gantlet of tournaments collectively known as Qualifying School, or Q School for short. Those who survived this season’s version are scheduled to tee it up this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
The final stage of Q School, consisting of six rounds over six days, was played in November at the Lumine Golf Club in Spain. As it does every year, the school produced career-making success and soul-crushing defeat to determine which 25 players — out of the initial 1,063 hopefuls from 50 countries — get to join the existing members of the European Tour.
At the final, Johannes Veerman, who grew up playing golf in Asia and now lives in Texas, barely made the cut that halves the field after four rounds.
Rikard Karlberg, a Swedish player who had secured his card once before but lost it after an illness, said he had to make a 45-foot putt on the final hole to finish tied for 25th place. “You miss it and you’re out,” he said.
By contrast, Carlos Pigem of Spain had it easy: He finished in ninth place, with three shots to spare.
“The winner is almost irrelevant,” said Mike Stewart, who oversees Q School. “It’s not about winning. It’s about qualifying. The guy who gets the last card is equally as delighted as the guy who wins the whole thing.”
In earning their tour cards, Veerman, Karlberg, Pigem and the other Q School graduates will face some of the best players in the world this week, including Brooks Koepka, the world No. 1, who had failed to make it through Q School in 2012. (He made it the next year through the developmental Challenge Tour, where he won four tournaments.)
The PGA Tour ended its version of Q School in 2012, opting instead to pluck players who finished in the top 25 over a full season in its developmental Korn Ferry Tour. (That tour has a version of Q School, which offers different levels of playing eligibility for the top 40 finishers.)
But Stewart said the European Tour’s Q School remained to ensure that a player who lost his card could regain it immediately if he played well enough. “It allows players who came off the main tour to get right back on again and not have to drop off for a year,” he said.
While players can also qualify for the tour through finishing in the top 15 on the Challenge Tour, players who make it through Q School are given higher status and more entries to tournaments.
What it takes to be one of the top 25 finishers in Q School has less to do with raw talent as it does with how their game is at that particular moment and their ability to manage pressure over consecutive days. (Stewart noted that golfers who play in the second of the three stages of qualifying school the week before the finals might play 15 days of high-pressure golf in a row.)
David Wedzik, director of instruction at Golf Evolution, who went through Q School in the 1990s, worked with Bradley Dredge, who finished tied with a shot to spare at this year’s Q School.
Wedzik says he coaches players to expect their well-honed swings to feel different under the pressure.
“Your body is going to change,” he said. “The speed of things is going to change. We talk about how it’s not just mechanics.”
Dredge, 46, of Wales, has played at a high level for two decades. From 2000 to 2011, he had full membership on the European Tour, winning twice, but lost his card in 2012 before regaining it in 2015, only to lose it again a few years later.
“Brad’s mind-set is he’s got a lot of clarity,” Wedzik said. “I’ve never seen him play differently in big moments.”
Nick Clearwater, an instructor in Colorado and vice president of instruction at Golftec, said there was a big difference between experienced players who had tasted the main tours and younger players early in their careers.
“If they’ve gone from the Tour to having to go back to Q School, at that point your golf career feels fragile,” Clearwater said. “No one is excited to be there. Most feel they’re better than that and don’t need to be there.
“The younger guys show up with a lot less to lose, and they’re a lot less stressed out.”
Trying to make a comeback, Karlberg, 33, said he was keenly aware of the pressure on him. It took him eight tries before he got his card in 2014. In 2015, he beat Martin Kaymer, who had won the United States Open the year before, in a playoff for his first European Tour event.
Having lost his card in 2018, Karlberg said he had a better sense of what he had to do this year. Now married with two children, he also did not want to return to the Challenge Tour, where the prize money is less.
“You know what you want,” he said. “You want to be playing in front of a great crowd. You want to play a course in great shape. I know how much that can change.”
What steadied him, he said, was knowing it was all or nothing on the last day. “It takes the pressure off,” he said.
On the final day, Veerman, 27, had different thoughts. Having narrowly survived the cut after the fourth round, he said he did not want to get so close and miss his card by a shot or two. “I was worried,” he said. “I didn’t want to mess this up.”
Instead of crumbling, he shot a bogey-free 66, which he called some of the best golf of his life. “People were falling off the leaderboard after playing well for 5.5 rounds,” he said. “I was just trying to block all that out.”
Not everyone remains a proponent of the Q School system. Wedzik, the coach and former player, said the PGA Tour’s yearlong process to select new tour members made more sense. Otherwise, the players who make it through Q School could just be having a great week.
“I don’t think it’s the best way to define who the best players are going to be for that next year,” he said. “If you did it 10 times with the same players, you’d get a lot of different results.”
Stewart said the European Tour was looking at other options, but he defended the current system, particularly given from how many countries the tour draws its members.
He pointed to recent players who qualified through Q School, including Kurt Kitayama and Guido Migliozzi, who after getting their cards in 2018 each won two events last season.
“If you’re good enough and you’re successful, that’s what it can do,” he said.
While Stewart said the Tour might consider a change to Q School in the future, it is expanding the number of spots for players on the Challenge Tour next year to 25, from 15 now.
For Veerman, the prospect of a season on the European Tour was heady. It did not sink in until his first event.
“I was playing my practice round, and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m on the European Tour, and I’m here to play an event,’” he said. “I’m starting at the bottom, and I have to figure out the courses, the weather conditions. It’s all new, but in the best possible way.”