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Annual Flushing in Madrid
Seve Ballesteros hosts (whatever that means) the Madrid Open which is played as the curtain comes down on the European Tour year. The only thing that distinguishes this event is that it is the last chance saloon, the jousting ground for those making up the tail end of the Volvo Order of Merit. For those unfortunates who fail to finish in the top-116 places in the OM, six rounds of intensely competitive golf awaits at the qualifying school. For those who have managed to scramble more than £100K in the course of the year, there is another season's circuit of the gravy train. Win a single event and you automatically get two years' exemption. Take a particularly lucrative top-10 place and you can breath easy for another year. The Madrid Open may not attract any of the big fish but for the minnows it is desperately important and it rarely fails to be dramatic. This year was no exception for two widely regarded future stars, Richard Sterne (pictured) and Johan Edfors, suffered very different fates.

Richard Sterne is a 23-year-old South African. He is the only player to have won both the junior and senior African amateur titles at stroke and matchplay, something that not even Player, Els or Goosen have done. Needless to say, he is tipped as the next African wonder. He turned pro during qualifying for the 2001 Open with some fanfare but his European Tour record to date has not been outstanding - finishing 30th on the Challenge Tour and only qualifying for the main tour by taking 28th place at the Q school in 2002. He had three top-10 finishes in his rookie year to give him 76th place in the OM and secure play in 2004. He was 122nd in the OM when he arrived in Madrid, needing to climb six places to retain his card. The fact that he won the Madrid event guarantees his playing rights for the next two years.

Johan Edfors was last year's Challenge Tour winner and from his performance was much fancied as the Swede of the future. At 29, he has enjoyed three years of consistent if unspectacular golf with occasional flashes of the brilliance expected of him. He had to finish in first or second place in Madrid to retain his Tour playing rights and with rounds of 66 and 67 behind him he looked on course to do that before misfortune struck at the closing hole in his third round. On the 18th tee, fate in unkindly guise took a hand as he hooked his ball into the trees. This is no big deal in an event of this size with spectators lining the fairways - but it is if one of these spectators pockets your ball. Since no one witnessed such an event, despite his playing partners Graeme McDowell and Anders Hanson insisting that must have been the case, Andy McFee the referee had no option but to send him back to the tee, declaring the ball lost. His resulting 69 for the round did not put him out of contention but the experience almost certainly contributed to his last round 70 and his attendance at qualifying school later this year.

Such is the way of it in golf and few that play the game at any level have not tasted the bitter flavour of misfortune. When you are playing for your living, however, and in this young man's case his career, the bitter pill must be all the harder to swallow. After taking top spot on the Challenge Tour only a year ago, Edfors now finds himself faced with the daunting task of surviving qualifying school while Sterne, after only three good day's play, now finds himself with two years' exemption. At this level and at this end of the pecking order, this system is hardly just and, furthermore, is hardly supportive of new blood coming through.

In the same way that calculating the Sony World Rankings is nonsense because of the differences in prize money available in different places at different times, so too is the system of establishing the Volvo Order of Merit. After winning the Dunhill Links Championship a fortnight agor, Stephen Gallagher need not appear for a year, far less trouble himself with Madrid. Jarred Mosely, as an example, is faced with qualifying school after ending up only £10 behind Robert Karlsson, despite earning over £100K this year. The fact that neither have figured in any tournament this year is important, for simply being in the top-50 in one event as distinct from another has determined which one plays next year.

As a small boy I remember complaining that it wasn't fair, after my opponent had chipped in from 20 yards, only to be told that golf was never meant to be fair. So be it, but I doubt if Johan Edfors will take much consolation from that bit of idle philosophy.

©    26 - OCTOBER 2004

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