A Grand Finale
Matt Cooper with his final report and conclusions from the Challenge Tour Grand Final in Dubai.
By Matt Cooper
Last Updated: 03/11/13 9:37pm
Remember Shiv Kapur? For a few hours he was the talk of the 2013 Open Championship, as he briefly (albeit dramatically) led the field at Muirfield during round one.
And in a complicated year - in which he has played on the Asian, Challenge, European and PGA Tours - that fleeting moment in the Scottish sun threatened to be the highlight of his season.
But, in winning the Dubai Festival City Grand Final at Al Badia GC, Kapur has not only neatly book-ended the Challenge Tour season (he won the first event of the schedule, the Kensville Challenge in February, as well as the last), but also guaranteed a return to the European Tour in 2014 - a performance of note that trumps the cameo.
His final day effort was a superbly measured example of ball-striking which included not one dropped shot. He made two birdies and had plenty of opportunities to make more, but instead made simple par after simple par, never once looking like relinquishing the four shot lead he began and ended the round with.
It made quite a contrast with his blistering start to the Open back in July when, by curious chance I found myself following his group from the first tee late on Thursday afternoon. The focus of my attention that day was Frenchman Gregory Bourdy, but it was the 31-year-old Indian who stole the show, making birdie on six of the first seven holes to hit the top of the leaderboard.
A double bogey on the tenth ultimately derailed his challenge, but he had enjoyed his brief experience in the spotlight and was well aware that the golfing world's media attention was on him at the time.
"Oh yeah," he laughed earlier during Grand Final week, "I knew I was on television and that I was leading. The crowds were buzzing and my family, who were following me, were excited. In fact I have a photograph my myself in front of a big yellow Open leaderboard, with my name at the top. It was a great moment in my career and I am very proud of it.
"I think the maddest thing was that I had watched the coverage earlier in the day and I saw Zach Johnson was something like four-under-par through five holes and I thought, 'How can anyone do that on this course?!'
"And then a few hours later I was six under through seven and laughing at the memory."
Four months later, with a European Tour card on offer, Kapur had a differently policy: he wasn't looking for birdies; he was avoiding errors.
"I knew today was going to be hard. I just had to stick to my game plan to keep mistakes off my card. I'm very proud of myself to shoot a bogey-free round and once I did that the pressure was on the rest of the guys so I'm extremely happy.
"I have had five or six professional wins but given the circumstances and everything leading up to the week it's right up there with the best of them."
Last man in
Challenge Tour Grand Final is not just about the winner: it's also about the other 14 men who leave the premises clutching (albeit metaphorically) European Tour cards and it is more or less guaranteed that one of them will earn it in gut-wrenching style.
This year that man was Scotland's Jamie McLeary who shot a final round three-under-par 69 to claim joint second place, which proved just enough to pinch the 15th card.
Discussing his score afterwards the 32-year-old admitted to having slightly misjudged the scoring on the par-five final hole. He had felt comfortable laying up short of the green in two shots, partly because he feels 60 yards is his perfect distance, partly because he didn't know what his friends watching on the balcony knew - the scores of other players. Those friends were gasping in disbelief that he had not gone for the green and were even more worried when his birdie putt stayed up.
But McLeary squeaked in and earned slaps on the back from fellow players and tour staff who know full well that he has often worried that, "I'll be the guy who never makes it beyond Challenge Tour. I've been to Grand Final a few times and I've had really bad injuries so I'm just very excited to finally get my chance."
Asked what he thinks of his prospects at the higher level he offers an intriguing notion about one distinction between the two tours.
"I'm a very consistent golfer. If you look at the scoring averages I'm right up there, but the key to graduating from Challenge Tour is to finish in the top two at the big money events - Kazakhstan, Madeira, St Omer or Grand Final - and that's something I just haven't done."
Might it be the case that, should he maintain that consistency, he will be better rewarded on the European Tour?
"I have often considered that and I certainly hope so! Finishing top 20, top 30 will reap rewards there, whereas it doesn't on the Challenge Tour."
With that thought McLeary was congratulated yet again by a delighted fellow player, a huge smile playing across the Scotsman's face, his eyes alight at the prospect of finally competing on the European Tour.
Three years ago I made my way to the Challenge Tour Grand Final for the first time and posed one question to everyone (tour staff, coaches, caddies, agents, players).
"Who," I asked, "will go on to greater things?"
That year there was only one answer. His name was Thorbjorn Olesen and the choice was vindicated as he became a European Tour winner, a world top 50 player and a major championship contender (at the 2012 Open).
Twelve months later I repeated the question and once again the answer was unequivocal. "Tommy Fleetwood," they all said, of the young Englishman who was a solid European Tour rookie in 2012 and a maiden winner this season, in the Johnnie Walker Championship.
I missed Grand Final 12 months ago, but I asked around and for the first time the answer was not unanimous.
But the majority verdict was on the money again, even though they ignored the graduates and selected Peter Uihlein, the young American who this year become a winner on the European Tour in Madeira.
All of which means that this year's man-to-watch is going to have plenty to live up to.
The news is that the voting has closed, Gallup have conducted the exit polls and the official observers have taken their places at trestle tables in community halls up and down the land, ready to watch the counting.
Okay, maybe not. It was a bit more simple than that. Two names cropped up, but one gained most votes: the three-time winner in 2013 Brooks Koepka. Maybe not a shock winner, but based on previous selections worth remembering.