Q School: Where golfing dreams are made, careers are damaged

MANCHESTER, England (AP) It's the cut-throat side of European golf that often gets overlooked, a six-day slog in northeast Spain where dreams are made and careers can be shredded.

For 156 players, a week at school couldn't get much tougher.

Next Thursday, 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) away from the opening round of the European Tour's lucrative, season-ending World Tour Championship in Dubai, the final stage of the tour's Q School will reach its climax just outside Barcelona.

The best 25 finishers will get a tour card for the 2017 season, opening the door for sponsorship and manufacturing deals, the chance to travel the globe and play on some of the world's great courses, and the big purses that come with it. Since 1985, 14 graduates from Q School have gone on to win a major, including Darren Clarke, Vijay Singh, Justin Rose, and Louis Oosthuizen.

For the rest, acute disappointment, a year slumming it on lower-tier tours, even a return to work at the local golf club.

''It's career-defining,'' says Jack Harrison, an Englishman on his third visit to Q School. ''It's what we aim for, really, getting that card. It would change my life drastically.''

Harrison used to work as a club pro at Wildwood Golf Club just outside London but has recently been playing in the Sunshine Tour in South Africa, picking up some cash there and also from the odd event on the lower-tier EuroPro and Challenge Tours.

Playing on the European Tour has been his dream, though. He grew up admiring Sergio Garcia's style of play, and has always wanted to get closer to the Spaniard to learn the game. That could be a reality soon.

''It's all about not thinking of the carrot at the end,'' said Harrison, who birdied the second playoff hole at the second qualifying stage at Castellon on Monday to earn one of the last spots in the finals.

Then there is Chase Koepka, one of six Americans looking to capture a European Tour card. He is the younger brother of Brooks Koepka, a winner on the U.S. PGA Tour and a Ryder Cup rookie this year.

Brooks Koepka began his pro career by playing in Europe, winning four times on the second-tier Challenge Tour and then on the European Tour at the Turkish Airlines Open before switching to the U.S. PGA Tour. Chase, who at age 22 is four years younger than Brooks and lives with him in Florida, wants to tread a similar path.

''It's a great place to learn and improve your golf game,'' Chase Koepka said in a phone interview from Spain, where he was preparing for the finals. ''It's the best place for me to develop my golf game. You play in a lot of different conditions over here, a lot of different types of golf courses, which ultimately made my brother a lot better player. I hope it does the same for me.''

Around 1,000 golfers with a handicap of scratch or better entered Q School - via a completed application form and a payment of 1,800 euros (now $1,960) - and 71 of them have come through the pressure-filled first two stages. They will join 85 exempt players at PGA Catalunya for the grueling final event, which is played over six rounds and 108 holes. The cut comes after Day 4 and trims the field to 70 plus ties.

There'll be 25 different nationalities competing in Spain, and some well-known players who are battling to save their top-level careers.

Y.E. Yang, winner of the 2009 U.S. PGA Championship, will tee up after failing to earn a top-10 finish on the European Tour all season and making the top 20 only twice. The South Korean is 44, and the seven-year tour exemption for his major victory is up this year.

Tom Lewis, who shot to fame when he led the 2011 British Open after the first round and eventually finished it as leading amateur, is at Q School for the first time after a highest finish of 26th this season.

Edoardo Molinari, a former Ryder Cup player and U.S. Amateur champion, is back at Q School for the second straight year.

Eddie Pepperell has been viewed as one of British golf's brightest prospects but he narrowly missed out on automatically keeping his card and must also qualify.

Describing how his downturn in fortunes has affected his life, Pepperell wrote in a personal blog: ''I never envisaged that struggling on the course with my golf would have the impact it did on my mood. My quality of life waned as my golf deteriorated gradually.''

Especially for older players who've had a taste of golf's high life or who have families and mortgages to pay, the next week will be extremely stressful and potentially demoralizing.

One bad shot could mean 12 months in the golfing wilderness.

''At the end of the week,'' Koepka said, ''the guys playing six rounds are going to be exhausted. You'll have to be pretty strong mentally out there. It does take its toll on you.''

Play starts on Saturday.

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