When Arnold Palmer turned 50 in 1979 a grand era dawned for “senior” golfers. Popularly known as “The King” he was the first superstar of golf’s fledgling TV age from the 1950s, setting the scene for other legendary figures who followed him, including Jack Nicklaus, Severiano Ballesteros, Greg Norman and Tiger Woods.
Palmer became eligible to play on the US Senior PGA Tour from its first season in 1980, and he was its marquee trailblazer, eventually helping it to become transformed into the current multi-million-dollar PGA Tour Champions (also known, rather disparagingly, in its early years as the “Round-Bellies Tour”).
At the end of the 2019 season, the career money leader was Germany’s Bernhard Langer, with a total of nearly $30 million since he turned 50 in 2007. Clearly, a lucrative mid-to-late career option for former stars no longer able to compete against the young guns on the main tour. And also for many journeyman pros who never quite made it to the top, but have been able to shine (and swell their bank accounts) after turning 50.
The same is the case on the European Tour’s senior circuit, now known as the Staysure Tour, which brings together top stars from the past as well as lesser names forging a new career path.
The European seniors tour offers nowhere near the same rewards as its US equivalent, but gaining a card to play on the tour is still a highly-coveted dream for many over-50 players.
In January, those not already qualified for the 2020 Tour from their performances last year, or their career records, headed to the Pestana Golf Resort in the Algarve, for the pre-qualifying and final stage of the Qualifying School.
At the end of a gruelling week, just five players emerged with cards…
Michael Long was the only player to card four consecutive sub-70 rounds (67-68-69-66) in the final phase, winning by two shots. The 51-year old New Zealander has competed in 99 European Tour events in his career, and has eight professional victories – the most recent in 2018 on the PGA Tour of Australasia.
“I’ve been lucky,” he said. “I’ve been pretty much exempt on most tours that I’ve played on. I think the last time I had a successful tour school was in 1992 or 1991, and that was down in Australia. I’ve failed a couple times in final stage on the US Tour.
“I can’t believe it really. This is completely out of the blue. It’s a lot of really good players out here, and if you can’t smile now, when can you? It’s just nice to come out on top of a top-quality field.”
Sharing second place on 12-under were Scottish amateur Euan McIntosh and Canadian David Morland IV who, like Long, will be competing in their rookie seasons on the Staysure Tour. McIntosh now turns professional, while Morland IV brings the professional experience he has gained from the PGA Tour. Englishman Andrew Raitt, who competed in 132 European Tour events between 1999 and 2010, finished alone in fourth place on 10-under.
The battle for the fifth and final card went to sudden-death, with Spaniards Carl Suneson and Victor Casado and Englishman Gary Marks deadlocked on eight-under after 72 holes. Suneson birdied the first play-off hole, to seal a return to the Staysure Tour for a third season, as the only Qualifying School graduate who will not be a rookie in 2020.
The Algarve was named “Golf Destination of the Year” at the 2019 International Association of Golf Tour Operators’ annual golf tourism awards in Morocco.