We’re four events into the 2017 Road to Oman campaign and from now on it becomes a relentless week in, week out odyssey until the season finale, the NBO Golf Classic Grand Final.
As ever, 15 heroes will be made at Muscat’s Al Mouj Golf in November and claim European Tour cards for next year, but who has been quickest out of the blocks in the early exchanges of the new season?
The story of the year so far has undeniably been Aaron Rai, whose two wins in four tournaments have taken him to the top of the Rankings.
Known for his unusual choice of sporting two gloves, the young Englishman came close to earning his European Tour playing rights in his rookie season last year, ultimately falling just a few hundred points shy in 18th place in the Rankings.
One year older and wiser, though still only (just) 22 years old, he is already now a double winner on the Challenge Tour and looks set to be the dominant force on the 2017 Road to Oman – for context, it took 21 tournaments for the first repeat winner (Bernd Ritthammer) last season); Rai has done it in four.
The first win came at the season-opening Barclays Kenya Open and, as a story, could barely have been more perfect – not only was the Wolverhampton man bouncing back emphatically from last year’s near miss, but he did so while watched on by his mother, born in Kenya but making her first return visit for 47 years.
The Nairobi crowds adopted him as one of their own – the fact that his win came on Mother’s Day in the United Kingdom merely added to the flow of tears after the winning putt had dropped on the final green.
Rai was at it again as match play golf returned to Challenge Tour schedules after an 18 year absence at the Andalucía Costa del Sol Match Play 9.
An understated first two days – the opening 36 holes were played as a traditional stroke play, after which the top 32 qualified for the weekend’s nine hole knock-out match play format – gave way to a ruthless weekend for Rai as he won all five of his contests, ultimately beating Ireland’s Gavin Moynihan 2&1 in a thrilling finale.
With a 14,000 point cushion at the top of the Rankings – Ryan Evans, in third, is a whopping 32,000 behind his compatriot – it already looks like 2017 could be Rai’s year.
Wallace won, Wallace gone
Evans took his first Challenge Tour victory at the second tournament of the season, the Turkish Airlines Challenge, before attention turned to the Algarve, and the Road to Oman’s most lucrative event of the year, the Open de Portugal at Morgado Golf Resort.
A first dual-ranking tournament for two years, not only were 500,000 points on offer in Portugal but also a European Tour exemption for the winner since the tournament was appearing on the Race to Dubai schedule as well.
Matt Wallace was highly fancied from the very start of the season, having won six times, including on five consecutive outings, on his way to dominating the Alps Tour last year, as well as impressing on a couple of Challenge Tour appearances.
He immediately gave notice of his competitive spirit, taking the lead into the final round in Kenya before succumbing to Rai’s final day brilliance, but a third place finish hinted at great things to come.
The 26 year old did not have to wait long, going wire to wire in Portugal to announce himself to the wider golfing world as one to watch – though in the process earning immediate promotion from the Road to Oman as he is now officially a European Tour player, and thus disappearing from the Rankings.
In his stead, Julian Suri’s career-best runner-up finish was enough to take him to top spot, though American is now back in second place following Rai’s Spanish success.
An international flavour
The ledger may read four tournaments, four victories by Englishmen, but the Road to Oman Rankings more accurately reflect the diverse nature of the Challenge Tour’s membership.
A Finn, a Swede, a South African, two Irishmen and two Frenchmen are all currently inside the top 15, with other notable early-season performers including Adrian Meronk, the most talented golfer Poland has yet produced and already looking impressive in 22nd place.
Tapio Pulkkanen’s fourth place is an overdue reflection of his long-known talent and potential, the powerhouse from Finland backing up his runner-up finish in Turkey with another top ten in Portugal for the two biggest pay cheques of his career so far.
Adrien Saddier and Sebastian Heisele came close to graduating last year from the Road to Oman – in Saddier’s case, a missed putt on the final green of the season deprived him of the final card in Muscat – but are already showing their class as they sit fifth and sixth respectively.
Further down, Irish eyes will be smiling both at the emergence of Moynihan – long tipped for great things after a stellar amateur career – and the resurgence of Ruaidhri McGee, who had something of an annus horribilis in 2016 but made the most of an invite to Turkey with a top five finish and carried that form into Spain, ultimately falling in the last 16.
As the summer now truly starts, with the D+D REAL Czech Challenge the third in a run of 21 consecutive tournament weeks on the Road to Oman, this picture is likely to change on a regular basis, but the state of play already makes for very interesting reading.
One more win, for example, and Rai immediately earns promotion to the European Tour – if it happens soon, it could open the door for others to make this year’s Rankings their own.
That said, the Road is long – with 23 more events, across 18 countries, those top 15 spots will feel very insecure to their present occupants.One thing is for sure, though: 2017 is set to be a hugely entertaining, fiercely-fought affair – and as Saddier showed last year, it can all come down to the final putt on the final green in Oman.