Matt Cooper

Across the Pond

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Challenge Tour Graduate Report

Monday, November 20, 2017

Every season 15 players graduate to the European Tour after the conclusion of the Challenge Tour's NBO Golf Classic Grand Final at Al Mouj Golf in Oman.
It's a journey that many of Europe's finest golfers have undertaken. Indeed, last week's Race to Dubai winner Tommy Fleetwood emerged as number one graduate six years ago in Italy. 
Often there are European Tour regulars among the graduates, player who have spent time recuperating at the lower level, but this year's crop count only six full seasons at the top level between them. Time will tell if this is a sign of things to come; Tour Director Alain de Soultrait certainly believes the depth of quality has never been deeper.
I spoke to the graduates during and after Grand Final, gaining a few clues about their games ahead of the 2018 season which begins this week with the UBS Hong Kong Open.
Tapio Pulkkanen (Finland, aged 27, ranked 1)
An enigmatic, refreshing character who wears a straw hat, an amused look in his eye and belts the ball with an old-fashioned swing. Prior to 2017 the five-time winner on the 2015 Nordic League had made 54 second-tier starts yet reaped only one result better than T30. He trumped all of that with three second-places and a breakthrough victory in the lucrative Kazakhstan Open on his way to number one spot.
His peers all agree that he hits the ball a long way from the tee, but what prompted the improvement? "I've been straighter this year," he smiled. "And it's a much easier game from the fairway. I also worked very hard on my wedges over the winter, spending six weeks in Florida, and that really helped my scoring. I've been in contact with Mikko (Ilonen) about how to behave on Tour and getting a caddie. I don't have much experience of next year's courses, but I have played Emirates GC so I'm looking forward to the Desert Swing."
Clement Sordet (France, 2)
His two wins in 2017 take his tally at CT level to four to which you can add six victories at Texas Tech for the 25-year-old introduced as "the man with the curliest hair on tour" by Pulkkanen at the Graduation Ceremony.
The French press suggest his swing and long game are a strength, to which you might consider adding mental strength because he's held a 54-hole lead three times and converted the win every time, including a masterly example in Oman. He also became only the third man in the last 13 Grand Finals to win despite not having a main tour card sewn up at the start of the week.
He's attached to Heritage Golf Resort, host of next week's Mauritius Open. 
Erik Van Rooyen (South Africa, 3)
The one-time captain of the Minnesota Gophers had four years on the Sunshine Tour gaining consistency but lacking a win before he made the breakthrough at the Eye of Africa PGA Championship in February. A big moment in his career? "Huge, huge!" he said. "Such a massive boost in confidence."
The roots of his CT success were in a conversation with compatriot Jake Roos. "I didn't really know how well I'd need to play," he explained, "and Jake told me you need a win and then to just keep going strong. We play a lot of golf, but it's a fast learning curve and my momentum built."
A winner late in the season in China ("China, I love you," he tweeted), he said of his game: "I'm a good ball-striker, always hit a lot of fairways and greens, but I started working with Dr Sherylle Calder (a putting visualization coach) this time last year. She's worked with Ernie Els and Branden Grace. The turnaround is awesome. I'd say putting is one of my strengths now." Joburg based he's worth watching in that region.
Aaron Rai (England, 4)
The 22-year-old from Wolverhampton, who learned the game on a council pitch and putt course, is notable off-the-course for his thoughtful answers, and it may well be an on-the-course trait too.
Three wins earned him Battlefield Promotion and he made a point of stressing how the circuit had educated him on "different courses, grasses, climates, low and high scoring" adding: "From a pretty young age my dad said I should really look to be versatile with my game. Some courses are going to suit your game, obviously, but it's also important to be adaptable to every challenge, and also not create mental blocks about what does or doesn't suit."
His first win was in the Kenya Open, completed on Mother's Day, when his mum (returning to her birthplace for the first time since 1970) was walking the fairways. Hits a very low, straight drive and attended the World Match Play at Wentworth as a small boy and asked Ernie Els by the putting green: "Are you a real jolly giant?"
Marcus Kinhult (Sweden, 5)
Tour veteran Barry Lane, who is a member of the same club in Sweden, has long praised the 21-year-old's potential. He held the 36-hole lead in the 2015 Nordea Masters whilst still an amateur and later that season very nearly did the same in the European Masters (T4). After such promise he struggled when turning pro.
"I found the lifestyle a bit of a shock," he said. "Just simple things like playing so much more than I was used to, in fact I picked up an injury that way, but I've definitely felt much more settled this season."
His target? "To stay on Tour." His game? "Solid. Fairly straight, not long." A potential highlight in 2018? "The Nordea Masters at The Hills GC because I live very close to the course."
Julien Guerrier (France, 6)
The 32-year-old was much-touted when he joined the paid ranks after victory in the 2006 Amateur Championship but 2017 (a first hint he's good in wind), his ninth season of double figure starts on the CT, was the first time he graduated and his one and only season on the European Tour (2010) failed to see him retain a card. So why the improvement this season, which included two victories?
The first change came late last year, when he started working with ex-Tour player, and now coach, Jean-Francois Lucquin. The second (possible) change involves the Nappy Factor; Guerrier became a father in early 2017.
He's also a tough cookie. He finished T27 in the Kazakhstan Open which, as far as the numbers go, was his worst effort late in the season, but he played one round in agony, at times lying on the grass in pain before being rushed to hospital.
Oliver Farr (Wales, 7)
The Welshman confirmed his second graduation from the Challenge Tour with a fine victory in the Hainan Open, late in the season in China, and now continues two traditions, one modern, one a little older.
Firstly he joins Chris Hanson and Jordan Smith on the main tour as winners of the third tier EuroPro Order of Merit. Secondly, he played golf for Shropshire & Herefordshire with fellow card holders Aaron Rai and Ashley Chesters, following in the footsteps of that county's Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam (who played for the same team in the 1970s).
Has a consistent long game, won at the very tight and tough-scoring National GC in Turkey in 2014, and loves Wentworth (indeed the best result of his 2015 European Tour rookie season, T27, came there). 
Ryan Evans (England, 8)
Once ranked No. 8 in the world as an amateur, by the age of 26 he was working in a call centre until he decided he'd had enough and turned pro. The following year he missed just two cuts on the CT, falling short of a main tour card, but got the 17th on offer at Q School.
He wasn't the first to learn that such a ranking leads to first or second reserve frustration and ultimately, despite a few highlights, he finished 135th in the rankings. Victory in this year's Turkish Airlines Challenge was a big turning point and he then ticked six consecutive top tens during the summer (but had mixed feelings about being christened Mr Top Ten). Has played a lot of golf with Andy Sullivan who he counts as a close friend and mentor.
Chase Koepka (USA, 9)
The win refused to come (he had everything but: a third, a second, a play-off defeat and a 54-hole lead), but he emulated big brother Brooks and graduated in his first full season.
Admirably patient when answering endless questions about his sibling, perhaps because he knows that, confidence in their games aside ("I'm not really surprised that we both graduated"), there is contrast rather than similarity to report.
"My wedge game is really good," he said "And I don't have a big miss; off the tee I'm usually in the fairway which is a pretty big advantage. The length's not there, but my short game is solid. I have a really boring game to be honest, nothing spectacular, but boring usually gets the job done."
Has his eye on the European Masters in 2018. "My brother always raved about Crans Montana in the Alps. I think my family might try to come out for that one."
Pedro Oriol (Spain, 10)
Arguably the most retro golfer on tour. He has a wild mop of hair, plumbobs putts, is the skinniest player since Ken Brown in 1978 and wears a Seve visor, a detail not to be overlooked, as he explained in happy detail.
Back in August the 31-year-old, a friend of Ballesteros' son Javier, visited the home of Spain's greatest golfer, saw his clubs and trophies, got hold of a visor with the Seve logo, popped it on his head, and promptly made a hole-in-one at the course Seve played, Pedrena. The very next week? Still wearing the magic visor he claimed a first Challenge Tour title, the Rolex Trophy.
Like Justin Thomas he started the year with a list of objectives. His were to win on the CT and regain his ET card. Job done. He believes he has learned from his experiences on the main tour in 2011 and 2015, when he failed to retain his card.
Jens Dantorp (Sweden, 11)
The Swede, attached to sometime Norea Masters host PGA National Sweden, progressed from Q School in 2013, but didn't retain his card and endured agonising experiences at Grand Final the last three years. In 2015 he led after 54 holes, but finishing T7 wasn't enough to win a card. In 2016 he finished second, again not quite good enough. This year he claimed victory in the UAE the week before Grand Final and then shot a last round 66 in Oman to claim T5 and finally secure a return to the European Tour.
His thoughts on his success at Al Mouj are revealing about his own game and also a layout new to the European Tour in February 2018: "It's a ball-strikers course. You need to be strong off the tee and you need to place smart shots into the greens. I see myself as a ball-striker and also a thinker on the course. You have to be strategic here, you can't just bomb it down the fairways. There are bunkers making landing areas narrow and rough where you almost can't find the ball. It fits my game pretty well."
Steven Brown (England, 12)
It's often said that golfers who spent time at Wentworth as children might be inspired to perform at the BMW PGA Championship. Well, Brown spent more than the odd day on the West Course; he played there on a scholarship.
This was his fourth full Challenge Tour season and improved on his previous best of 27th in 2014. Closed the season out with 18 consecutive top 40 finishes, 12 of them top 20, seven top ten. Yet to claim a win however.
Played on the winning GB&I Walker Cup team of 2011 alongside Tom Lewis and Andy Sullivan, claiming a win in the first singles (over Russell Henley) and an important half point in the second set (against Blayne Barber). Won the same year's English Amateur at Woburn. 
Adrien Saddier (France, 13)
Earned his card with three second-placed finishes and is excited to be reunited with 2016 room-mate Matthieu Pavon, 12 months after missing a putt on the 72nd hole of the final event of the season to join Pavon on the European Tour.
Finished T16 in this year's Open de France and the French media report that he believes his game is better suited to the main tour, an allusion to the fact that CT circuits are more susceptible to low scoring whereas Saddier feels he is better on tough set-ups. It's true that in his only full year on the ET he did make a fair number of cuts (15 in 27 starts) but struggled to push on. Seven top 30s suggest he was far from outclassed. 
Scott Fernandez (Spain, 14)
Three of his seasonal top tens came with laps of 65 and there's a sense that he likes an aggressive test, although he admits he's learned to rein that in after attacking too much in 2016. He proved as much in finishing tied third at Grand Final, when nothing less would do to claim his card, all whilst suffering from a viral infection and having to make "the best bogey of my career" on the 71st hole.
Says: "I've been striking the ball really well this year and the long game is my strength. The big difference, though, was gaining experience, learning to manage the schedule, coping with travel."
Not afraid of the cold: Loves skiing and played in -10 whilst at Iowa State University. Hails from Andalucia, watched events at Valderrama and, more quirkily, has a granny from Glasgow which excited the local press during the Scottish Challenge.
Bradley Neil (Scotland, 15)
Turned pro as a 19-year-old and it's interesting that Justin Rose is a management group stablemate, and also offered congratulations on graduation, because there was more than a touch of Rose's early problems in Neil's first 25 starts as a pro (just four cuts made). Back-to-back second places in July entirely changed the focus of the big-hitter's season and he was superb in finishing T9 to claim the last spot at Grand Final. 
The event he's most looking forward to next year? "It has to be the Scottish Open. Very excited to play my home Open as it's something I've not done yet in two and a half years as a pro. I played invites for six months after I left the amateurs. I didn't play that good, but even seeing the courses and playing alongside other guys I did think I'm just as good as them.
"I've built so much confidence this year. All 15 guys going up have no reason to be fearful. Seeing Jordan Smith and Julian Suri succeed, Ryan Fox and Alex Bjork thrive, that's good for us. The courses are different and players are different but if you go out and play like you did the previous year you'll get the rewards."

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