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Battle to earn European Tour card will go right to the wire for top 25 at Spain’s Lumine

Benjamin Poke playing the fifth round of the 2019 European Tour Qualifying School

Benjamin Poke lost one stroke of his three-shot lead at the European Tour Qualifying School at Lumine GC, in Spain’s Tarragona. Picture by GETTY IMAGES

THE battle to earn European Tour playing privileges will go down to the wire with 22 players within three shots of the all-important 25th position.

Meanwhile Benjamin Poke posted a two-under par 69 retain the lead at the European Tour Qualifying School Final Stage after 90 holes over five days.

Poke said: “I’ve just tried to approach every round and every day in the same way and just hit one shot at a time.

“A few ups and downs out there but that is golf, and there is no day that is the same, so overall, I’m really happy with today’s performance.

“I was feeling the nerves a little bit at the start, but once I got it going it just felt like another day out on the golf course.

“I was just enjoying playing golf. I had some nice playing partners and we just talked along the way.

“Four back-to-back birdies is always nice to get your game going as well, and I managed to hole the putts over the opening few holes which gave me some good momentum.

“I hit my second shot on the ninth a little right and it managed to plug itself in the edge of the bunker.

“So I got a little bit unlucky there. But I thought ‘that’s just how it is sometimes’ and again I just tried to keep my eye on the next shot.

“The strategy tomorrow is just to keep doing all the same things we’ve been doing all week.

“We have a good game plan on how to approach the course and in that way circumstances don’t really change. So, if we do that, then we will make a good score and we take it as it comes.”

The Dane has set the pace at Lumine Golf Club since the second round and the 26-year-old will head into the final round atop the leaderboard on 18-under.

Poke is currently nine shots inside the cut-off for a European Tour card, with the top 25 and ties earning full playing status for 2020, following the conclusion of Wednesday’s sixth and final round.

Essex’s Dale Whitnell, whose breakthrough win on the Challenge Tour came in September’s KPMG Trophy, sits nervously in the crucial 25th place, alongside Northern Ireland’s Jonathan Caldwell.

Both will desperately want to be at least in that spot come tomorrow. afternoon, while Northumberland’s 2013 Amateur Champion Garrick Porteous is in 20th spot after a second successive 68, also faces an anxious last day.

Poke is two strokes ahead of Finland’s Sami Valimaki and three ahead of Frenchman Adrien Saddier and India’s SSP Chawrasia, who share third place on 15-under.

Valimaki said: “It’s been a really good five days for me, especially today I started really well going two-under on my first four holes, which let me breathe a little bit.

“It wasn’t great to bogey the last hole, but to shoot three-under is pretty good.

“Tomorrow, I just have to feel really comfortable and start again. I’ve been hitting the ball really well, so I’ll just have to keep letting the putter make the short ones and see where it leaves me at the end of the day.”

Spaniard Alejandro Cañizares, one of last year’s Qualifying School joint-winners, is one of six men who share fifth place on 14-under.

That group also includes three-time European Tour winner Grégory Havret, Yorkshire’s Marcus Armitage, Sussex’s Toby Tree, Canada’s Aaron Cockerill and Korean Jinho Choi.

Havret, who has won three times on the European Tour since turning pro in 1999, said: You feel good when you play well, especially in this kind of week.

“It’s long, it’s physically and mentally not easy, but that’s what you have to deal with.

“After last year I still wanted to play golf and I had the opportunity to play the Challenge Tour and I think it’s a great Tour.

“I wanted to play a full year there and try to get back to the European Tour through the Challenge Tour, instead of playing a few European Tour events and a few Challenge Tour events.

“I thought it was good to stick on one Tour, and I really enjoyed it, I must say,” added Havret who beat Phil Mickelson in a play-off to win the 2007 Scottish Open, at Loch Lomond, and was runner-up in the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach.

“To be tied fifth after five rounds of a professional golf tournament is pretty good, but there are still 18 holes to go and anything can happen,” said Havret.

“The important thing is that I keep focusing on the same things I have all season on the Challenge Tour and all week here at Q-School.”

Aaron Cockerill, who has had two top fives on the Challenge Tour this year, said: “It was a good finish with the eagle at the last.

“It’s funny, I shot one worse today than I did yesterday, but I feel so much better because yesterday I was six-under through 10, and kind of bled in.

“And today, I was four-under on the last five holes and it just feels so much better. Now I’m just looking forward to tomorrow,” said the 27-year-old who has been playing on the PGA Cananda Tour.

Somerset’s Laurie Canter is well placed in 12th place after an excellent 66 while Lincolnshire’s David Coupland, a graduate from the EuroPro Tour in 2018, is in 20th, on 10-under.

Fichardt jumps 50 places after superb 64

THE biggest mover of the day was five-time European Tour winner Darren Fichardt, who posted a sublime seven-under par 64 to move from the cut-line into a tie for 16th place.

Fichardt said: “I needed that, big time. The first few rounds have been very frustrating.

“I’ve been playing well and simply haven’t been making the putts, so it was nice to hit a few really close and have some tap-in birdies on the front nine – and then just close it out on my back nine.

“I just wanted to keep giving myself the chances this morning and hope that the putts kept dropping, so I did better than that.

“My front nine was really tricky, it was really windy so for me to turn in five under was unbelievable really.

“I was just trying to be more aggressive and pitch it closer to the hole – and I found myself hitting it in really close,” added Fichardt.

That leap up the leaderboard offers the South African a great opportunity to regain his playing privileges after finishing 130th this year in the Race to Dubai.

Forty-four-year-old Fichardt has five wins on the European Tour since 2001 – including the Joburg Open two years ago, but finished 130th on the Race to Dubai with his winner’s exemption ending this month.

While those near the top of the leaderboard will be looking to consolidate their position during the final round of the tournament, there are still plenty of players aiming for a last-minute breakthrough into the top 25.

Kent’s Steven Tiley and Spain’s Pedro Oriol both carded three-under par 68s to move into a tie for 33rd place, just one stroke outside the top 25, while Ireland’s Niall Kearney and Scotland’s Daniel Young each posted four-under par 67s to join the group on the cusp of the qualification spots.

The final round will begin at 8am UK time on Wednesday, when the top 25 players and ties after the close of play will earn life-changing European Tour cards for the 2020 season.

•For live scoring from the final round at Lumine, click here.

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