Challenge Tour report
Matt Cooper was at last week's English Challenge, an event that marked the halfway stage of the Challenge Tour season
By Matt Cooper. Last Updated: July 31, 2012 10:06am
Chris Paisley of England poses with the trophy after winning the English Challenge
In recent years the Challenge Tour has been a real success story, producing wave after wave of young golfers who have prospered on the European Tour and last week the tour played the English Challenge at Stoke by Nayland Hotel, Golf & Spa.
One of the few tour events held on homesoil it offered lots of UK-based players the opportunity to have family and friends in the galleries, whilst many of them also took the chance to book their families a week in Stoke by Nayland's lodges or hotel and spa. Falling right in the middle of the schedule it gave the week something of a half-term feel and, maintaining that theme, here is our half-term report on the season so far:
A curious year
The Challenge Tour is rightly proud of its ability to fast-track young players to the European Tour, as well as offer others the chance to slowly find their feet in the professional game.
2012, however, started with many veterans thriving. Brits Philip Archer, Raymond Russell and Sam Walker have all won, whilst their compatriots Gary Lockerbie and Simon Wakefield are first and third in the rankings. All are players who have been around a long time, bouncing between European and Challenge Tours.
The year has also seen the co-sanctioned event go to veterans - the Madeira Island Open was claimed by Ricardo Santos and the St Omer Open by Darren Fichardt.
There may be reasons for this however: in the history of the Tour there has often been five or six seasons of young talent thriving followed by a season of the vets taking over. It's also thought that a lot of young Europeans have remained in the amateur game this season, for events such as the Eisenhower Trophy.
One week before the English Challenge teed off Thorbjorn Olesen was playing in the penultimate group of the third round of the Open Championship alongside Tiger Woods, just 18 months after graduating from the Challenge Tour.
He's the best known of a large crop of highly talented Danish players and another who might soon be making waves is Andreas Hartoe. He first made a name for himself in 2010, when he won twice on this tour, once as an amateur, than again as a professional.
He won a European Tour card at the end of that year but thinks the step up in class was too swift. "Yeah, it all happened a bit quickly," he explains. "But I also learned so much in that year on the main tour. I think that is key - to learn things even when you're not playing well."
This year he is yet to add another win but five top ten finishes have left him in a strong position to claim one of the ten full cards available in the season-ending rankings.
He also acknowledges the rise of Danish golf. "I think what has happened is that we've always had good Danish golfers to look up to, but then a pretty good group of us grew up together and we pushed each other on. I definitely look at the success of Olesen, Morten Orum Madsen, Joachim Hansen, Mark Haastrup and Lasse Jensen. We're pushing each other on and Danish golf looks really strong right now."
A few years ago Henrik Bjornstad played for a few years on the European and PGA Tours, but no Norwegian man has yet come close to matching Suzann Pettersen's achievements.
One man keen to make a name for himself in the sport is Espen Kofstad, a 24-year-old from Losby. He had a solid debut year in 2011, finishing 35th in the rankings, but this year has witnessed a real improvement in results. Consistent all year, he made the breakthrough in Italy a few weeks ago, winning the Acaya Open and backed that up with a third placed finish at Stoke by Nayland. What impresses most is his down-to-earth nature.
"I loved the pressure of the final round in Italy," he told me. "I had been preparing for it with my mind coach. I knew exactly what to expect and I was really pleased to be feeling nervous. That's what I expected, but I dealt with it. I can't wait to experience it again!"
The 20-year-old Frenchman is the only multiple winner on the tour this year with victories on debut (and on an invite) at the Karnten Open in Austria and the Credit Suisse Open in Switzerland. He started playing the game aged four and although he has gone through the ranks of the French Golf Federation his amateur results were not especially outstanding, but his professional debut season has been exceptional.
In both of his victories he has admitted to thriving on the pressure of the final day. He might want to steer clear of a third win this season however. The good news is that it would earn him Battlefield Promotion to the European Tour. The bad news is that players achieving that goal have a curiously poor record when they step up. Or perhaps he'd thrive on that pressure too?
Despite the continuing lack of major winners, English golf has never been stronger in depth. This year has seen two new names who could join the ranks on the European Tour sooner rather than later.
The first is 21-year-old Eddie Pepperell, who won the ALLIANZ Cotes D'Armor Bretagne in May. The nature of his win was impressive, hinting at a talent to stay calm and go low.
He began the final day four shots off the lead and opened with two early bogies. He responded with a birdie before playing the back nine in just 32 strokes. "I didn't really miss a shot on the back nine," he said. "I'm proud of the way I coped under pressure, it's testament to the work I've done with my coach and my father."
The second win of note came at Stoke by Nayland when 26-year-old Chris Paisley continued his rise through the professional ranks.
He turned pro after playing the 2009 Walker Cup at Merion, the culmination of an amateur career that saw him win the European Championship with England, represent Europe in the Palmer Cup and win events on the tough US college circuit whilst at the University of Tennessee.
He played mostly on the Alps Tour in 2011, but has been impressively consistent throughout 2012 and his win in the English Challenge was coming.
Both players will be worth watching in the coming years.
The rest of the season
Twelve events remain on the tour in 2012 so there is plenty of time for the rankings to change. The top ten players after the San Domenico Grand Final will earn full European Tour cards, and those ranked 11 to 15 get decent cards too. Perhaps the biggest week of the year will come in September when the tour travels east to Kazakhstan. It has the third largest prize fund of the year and a good finish there can transform anyone's season.