A dominant Benjamin Poke led the way with a six-shot victory in the final round of European Tour Qualifying School as the first of 28 players to earn life-changing European Tour cards.
The Dane moved into the lead during the second round of the gruelling six-round examination of both golf and mental ability at Lumine Golf Club, and showed remarkable consistency when breaking 70 in each round.
Rounds of 67-67-69-67-69-64 sealed victory ahead of three-time European Tour winner Gregory Havret, who secured a return to the major European Tour with his second-placed finish on 19-under-par, in what he said was a make-or-break week for his career.
27-year-old Poke, who has only just come through his rookie season on the European Challenge Tour, is joined by his 18-year-old compatriot Rasmus Hojgaard, who overcame an opening-round 74 to finish the Final Stage in a share of fifth place.
“To play on the European Tour is something that you always dream about when you are young, so to finally stand here with my card is unbelievable," said Poke.
“I know that when I get it going I can shoot really low and that I’m playing well but I was still really nervous going out there this morning. I kept trusting my game and trusted my swing and my game plan. I never relaxed though, because I know that anything can happen in this game, so it was a matter of just taking things one shot at a time.
“I’m planning to celebrate this moment for a while. You work so hard and then there are times when you are struggling and it’s not easy, but you’ve got to get up and carry on and celebrate the good times when they happen.”
Havret was a relieved man as he secured his return to the European Tour, saying that his career could have taken a turn for the worse had he not made it through.
“I’ve missed the European Tour since last year and even though I had a great time playing on the Challenge Tour this season it was make-or-break for me this week in terms of my career, so it’s a big relief to secure my card this week," said Havret.
“Our wives, so much of the time, are the most important people around us and that’s certainly the case for me. She wants me to go out there and live my passion as best I can and she has always supported me with that, so this achievement is for her.
‘’I’m turning 43 on Monday so I don’t have too long left in my career but I’m going to take the positives from this week and come back out on the Tour a little bit fresher and enjoy being back in the company of my friends on the European Tour.”
The promise of a thrilling conclusion to Final Stage was fulfilled again on the Lakes Course as American Sihwan Kim carded an eight under par final round of 63 to jump 38 places and finish the tournament with a European Tour card in hand, as he cemented a share of 17th place
Kim’s fellow American Johannes Veerman also completed an impressive turnaround, and after opening Final Stage with a pair of 74s, the 27-year-old came storming back to close with rounds of 67-67-66-66 to end the tournament on 14 under par, booking his ticket to the European Tour with a tied 13th place finish.
The greatest excitement was delivered by Rikard Karlberg, who holed a 50-foot putt on the 108th and final hole to finish in a tie for 25th place, picking up the last available European Tour card. The emphatic end to the gruelling tournament completed an emotional comeback for the Swede, who returned to professional golf in 2019 following a battle with a serious infection and depression.
“I hit my second shot a bit further away from the pin than I wanted and had around 50 feet for birdie," said Karlberg. "I had a feeling all day that the number would be 12 under par, so I knew I needed to hole it. When I hit it, I thought it should be good and then I saw it was tracing the line perfectly and saw the speed and thought ‘come on, just reach’.
“The euphoria I felt was just happiness. I don’t think anyone really likes this week. It’s horrible. It’s pressure all week and you’re walking with tension and you don’t have much room for error. This week has been so frustrating with my putter; I missed so many putts and then to be able to hole that one when I needed, it just feels fantastic.
“I think I am a better golfer now than I was then. I’ve played a few years on Tour and I’ve learned about the pressure and I’ve learned that you need to hit the shots, even if you’re nervous.”
Frenchmen Havret, Jean-Baptiste Gonnet, Adrien Saddier and Robin Sciot-Siegrist all booked their tickets to the European Tour at Final Stage, equalling the record for the number of French players to graduate from Qualifying School.
The 2019 European Tour Qualifying School was contested over 252 holes in three stages across 14 different venues. A record number of 1,063 entrants bid for one of the coveted European Tour cards, surpassing the previous record of 1,026 from 2017.