5 Things: Europeans in Q-School fare well on Day 1

Rafael Cabrera-Bello during Round 3 of the Portugal Masters.

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LA QUINTA, Calif. – No one wants to arrive at Q-School underprepared, but what can you do when you were a continent away just three days earlier?

A handful of European Tour players are plying their trade in this final Q-School that will offer PGA Tour cards. They played their home circuit’s season finale, last week’s DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, before arriving at the California desert.

Many took a 16-hour direct flight from Dubai to Los Angeles on Monday morning, arriving in California around 1 p.m. A 140-mile drive through L.A.’s famed traffic followed, getting them to La Quinta after dark Monday evening.

“The traffic in Los Angeles in horrendous,” said Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, the world’s No. 33 player. “I didn’t have a GPS so that was quite an accomplishment, getting here without getting lost.”

Earning a PGA Tour card is his next goal. Five of the 60 players who competed last week in Dubai are at Q-School. Four of those five are ranked in the top 60 in the Official World Golf Ranking, including Fernandez-Castano and Rafael Cabrera-Bello, both of whom won on the European Tour in 2012.

“You get here a little tired. You wake up at 3 a.m. and you don’t really know where you are, but we’re used to that on the European Tour,” Fernandez-Castano said after his first-round 71. He’s T-82.

It was an understandably mediocre opening day for the globe-trotting Europeans. Several played just nine practice holes Tuesday in an attempt to conserve energy for this six-round tournament. Fernandez-Castano has never played PGA West’s Nicklaus Tournament Course, so he walked it after Wednesday’s round at the Stadium Course. Others will play “blind” Thursday as they did for half of Wednesday’s round.

Cabrera-Bello, who won the European Tour’s star-studded affair in Dubai this year, is T-50 after shooting 70, as is Sweden’s Alex Noren. Australia’s Marcus Fraser is T-34 after shooting 69. The lowest-ranked of the fivesome, France’s Romain Wattel, is leading the pack after shooting 5-under 67. The 21-year-old from France holed out a gap wedge for eagle-2 on the par-4 13th and is currently T-9.

“This is the year to try,” Wattel said, alluding to the fact that this is the final Q-School that will offer PGA Tour cards. He finished 51st on this year’s Race to Dubai and is No. 164 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Wattel also had to play Q-School’s second stage in California the week before the Dubai event.

Fraser’s travels aren’t over. He’ll leave from Q-School, which ends Monday, to play next week’s Australian Open in his native land. He’s scheduled to arrive Wednesday afternoon. “I’m a glutton for punishment right now,” he said.

He doesn’t have a choice, though. The Q-School changes have necessitated such drastic measures.

• • •

2. TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER: Your Q-Schol leader, with just 90 holes remaining, is Web.com Tour player Steve LeBrun. He shot a bogey-free 64 on PGA West’s Stadium Course, traditionally the more difficult of the two layouts. LeBrun, who was 56th on this year’s Web.com Tour money list, made birdie on four of his last five holes Wednesday. The 34-year-old is seeking his first PGA Tour card.

• • •

3. FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING: Camilo Villegas is making his first appearance at Q-School finals. His debut comes after three victories on the PGA Tour, most recently at the 2010 Honda Classic. Villegas, 30, finished 144th on this year’s PGA Tour money list, the first time in seven PGA Tour seasons that he failed to earn more than $1 million.

He shot a bogey-free 70 in his first Q-School round, making birdies at the Stadium Course’s par-5 eighth hole and its island-green, par-3 17th.

“It was simple,” Villegas said. “Nothing special.”

Villegas was the first-round leader at this year’s Humana Challenge, which also was held at PGA West. His gallery of a couple dozen people was likely Wednesday’s largest.

“Yes, we’re used to playing PGA Tour events where there are big galleries, but let me tell you something, you don’t see big galleries or small galleries,” Villegas said. “At the end of the day, you’re just there trying to focus on your game.”

Villegas also played Q-School in 2004, but failed to advance past second stage. He played his way into status on the 2005 Web.com Tour status and finished 13th on the money list to earn his first PGA Tour card.

• • •

4. LOW SCORES ABOUND: Weather was perfect for scoring in Q-School’s first round. Temperatures were in the 70s, and there was barely a breeze.

Of the 172 players in the field, 110 broke par. Both the Stadium and Nicklaus Tournament courses played under par Wednesday. The Nicklaus course had an average score of 70.5, while the Stadium yielded an average score of 71.0.

It took a score of 8-under 424 to earn a PGA Tour card at last year’s Q-School at PGA West; multiple rounds were played in extremely high winds and cold, though. It took 19 under par to earn a Tour card the previous time Q-School was held at PGA West (2008); that tournament was played in calm conditions. A similar forecast is expected this year.

Just three players who shot over par in the first round of last year’s Q-School went on to earn a PGA Tour card. That number was one in 2008.

• • •

5. SHORT SHOTS: Alexandre Rocha is off to a good start as he seeks a rare hat trick. Rocha, who shot 65 Wednesday, is seeking to earn a PGA Tour card at Q-School for a third consecutive year. He finished 131st on this year’s money list. ... Remember the six players who advanced to Q-School’s second stage after Blayne Barber disqualified himself from the first stage? Chesson Hadley was the only one of those half-dozen to make it to Q-School finals. He got off to a good start, shooting 4-under 68. He’s T-20. ... There are four Korean players T-20 or better after Wednesday’s first round: Si Woo Kim (67), Kyoung-Hoon Lee (67), Meen-Whee Kim (68) and Dong-hwan Lee (68). Korea is the only country, besides the United States, to graduate multiple players from each of the past two Q-Schools. Last year’s Korean grads, Seung-Yul Noh and Sang-Moon Bae, both had successful rookie seasons. ... There are five 2012 All-Americans in the Q-School field. Derek Ernst led the way among that contingent with a 4-under 68. Three of the five broke par, as Joakim Mikkelsen shot 70 and James White shot 71. Stephan Jaeger shot 72, while Patrick Cantlay fired 73.

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