Niall Kearney is hoping the best is yet to come after he guaranteed himself Challenge Tour status for next season at European Tour Qualifying School in Spain.
Kearney came through the pressure cooker of the first four days unscathed to make the 72-hole cut mark at minus-four ahead of the final 36-holes over the Lakes Course at Lumine where the top-25 and ties at the close of play Wednesday will earn their ticket to the European Tour.
“It was interesting because when we came through the turn, there was a big scoreboard and I just had a glance at it and tied 70th was two-under at that stage. At that point I think I was three-under so I had a bit of a comfort zone,” Kearney said as he reflected on his eventual three-under par round of 69 that saw him over the line.
“I got a couple of nice birdies on 12 and 13 and then I dropped a shot on 14. I actually holed a putt on 17 from about 20 feet for another birdie and there was another big scoreboard at the green there. I had a look after I’d holed out and I thought ‘Jesus Christ, tied 70th is four-under now’. That putt was to go to five-under so that gave me a bit of a cushion going down the last.”
Still, even for someone as experienced as Kearney, a one-shot cushion proved little to play with and some nervy moments were still to come over the final obstacle.
“The last hole is probably the shortest hole on the course, a par-4, but it’s really tricky – there’s water everywhere, it was a tight pin position and I ended up putting myself under a little bit of pressure,” he recalled.
“I hit a four-iron off the tee trying to get down to the corner to leave myself a wedge into the green but I tried to take too much off the tee shot, pushed it a little bit and ended up behind a tree so I had to chip out.
“It was no easy task to make a five from there. It was only 73 yards but there was trouble everywhere. I had the luxury of playing away from the pin whereas some lads had to take it on and they were spinning back into the water. I left myself 30 feet and thankfully I hit a great putt to about 12 inches so didn’t leave myself too much to do there.”
The two-putt bogey was significant as the top-70 and ties pocketed Challenge Tour status ahead of the final two days play. After grinding his way through the EuroPro Tour circuit over the past few months, it’s a major step in the right direction for the 31-year old, albeit a familiar one.
“I’ve been there before,” he said, satisfied but eager for more. “I’ve played Challenge Tour for years. I think this is my 10th Tour School so it’s not like it’s my first go around. Obviously, it’s great relief to have a bit of status secured going into the last couple of days but it’s not necessarily new.
“I’ve also done Asia Tour School the last nine years so this probably gives me the opportunity to not do that this year which is nice so there is a welcomed structure there now.”
In the more immediate sense, that status should provide some relief for Kearney, a freedom that he’s played without as he fought for every stroke to ensure he has a chance with two days to play. Although there’s a certain green light flickering, a licence to attack to cut the current four stroke deficit between him and the top-25 projected to earn their Main Tour card next year, Kearney is refusing to push the panic button just yet with time still on his side to mount a telling charge.
“I’ve been playing well, hitting the ball solid, giving myself a lot of chances, putting well. I don’t need to go and start shooting at pins with 3-irons. I just have to play smart and roll in a couple of putts. If I can shoot a couple of 67s and see where that leaves me, that’s got to be satisfactory whether you end up with a card or not,” he added.
“Guys that are on the bubble at the moment are going to be feeling the squeeze tomorrow big time so that’s something that I’m not going to feel and that’s an advantage for me. It does give me the opportunity to go out and play with much more of a free spirit because today was anything but.
“It was all about making the cut. Guys will go out and say it’s about six rounds and seeing where you’re at and whatever but everyone knows that it’s such a big difference in terms of what you get out of missing the cut and making the cut – there’s a huge difference in status there.
“It’s definitely pressure. There’s no doubt about it. I’ve had those feelings many times and I’ve been a lot of similar situations through the years so therefore, maybe I was able to cope with it better. But if I was to play the same round of golf as I did today a few years ago, I probably would have shot 73 instead of 69 so that’s progress.
“Look, I’m very happy. I’ll watch the match tonight, relax and hopefully there’s a great last two rounds to come.”
Full scoring HERE