As it always does, the Kazakhstan Open conjured another dramatic weekend of European Challenge Tour golf and, with 450,000 points shared by the field, created some significant movement on the Road to Oman.
Now just five events remain before the top 15 of the Rankings are decided – ahead of this week’s Challenge de España, here are some of the key points of interest for Challenge Tour fans.
The Rankings top spot
For most of the season, the race to top the Road to Oman has been slightly anticlimactic, with Aaron Rai’s victory in the season-opening Barclays Kenya Open, followed by a second win at the Andalucía Costa del Sol Match Play 9 three events later, giving him a strong early platform.
The only man to trouble his reign at the top of the Rankings was Julian Suri, whose runner-up finish in the lucrative Open de Portugal at Morgado Golf Resort was followed by a maiden win at the D+D REAL Czech Challenge and took the American to Number One.
However, Suri is no longer on the Road to Oman – his remarkable victory in the European Tour’s Made in Denmark last month earned him full Race to Dubai privileges.
Before that, Rai had claimed a third title of the season, earning him immediate European Tour status too, and though he remains on the Rankings, his absence from Challenge Tour events in the last month has opened the door for others.
Taking full advantage last week was Tapio Pulkkanen, who claimed an overdue maiden victory in Almaty to become only the third player to occupy the top position in 2017 – two early-season runner-up finishes had already put the Finn in a strong position, but the 72,000 points for winning in Kazakhstan doubled his tally for the year.
One week earlier, Julien Guerrier won in Ireland for a second title of the season and move beyond the 100,000 point barrier, and one or two more good results will definitely keep the Frenchman in the mix to succeed Jordan Smith as the Road to Oman winner this year.
Ultimately, though, no one is out of reach and, with Guerrier and Pulkkanen now firmly in the mix, it should be an exciting finale to the season to see who will finish as 2017’s Number One player.
The top 15
The big question here is: how many points will be needed? European Tour graduation remains the Challenge Tour’s Holy Grail but only 15 players will be fortunate enough, and will be doing mental gymnastics on the final afternoon in Muscat in a bid to work out how many points will be enough.
Last year, an unusually high 90,000 points was required for the final card but there is less certainty this year, with Suri and Matt Wallace – winner in Portugal – not in the Rankings any more, meaning around 200,000 points have been removed from the overall pool.
That said, with more than 1.5 million points still on offer across the final five events of the season, there is scope for much to change – one good week right now could change someone’s career.
Estanislao Goya is currently in the 15th and final European Tour spot with 62,153 points but not even 20,000 points cover the 20 players directly behind the Argentinian.
The only players at this stage who look secure in the top 15 would be Pulkkanen, Rai, Guerrier and Chase Koepka, who also passed the 100,000 points mark with his play-off defeat in Kazakhstan at the weekend.
Behind him, it is a 26,000 point gap to fifth-placed Ryan Evans, who will be looking to live up to his recently acquired ‘Top Ten’ nickname with a few more good results to consolidate his return to European Tour golf.
Ultimately, the race will run until the final putt drops in Oman on November 4, but it looks likely that at least 80,000 will be required for the top 15 – but with the Rankings so bunched, that does not rule too many players out even at this late stage in the year.
The top 45
As the saying goes, you have to be in it to win it. The NBO Golf Classic Grand Final is significant for many reasons, but – as Jens Dantorp showed last year – even a supposed outside hope can make a near-glorious last bid for graduation.
The Swede was nowhere near the top 15 after just sneaking into one of the final spots in the field but, on the last afternoon of the season, fell one shot short of gate-crashing the party – needing to win, he made an untimely bogey, the first of his round, on the 18th hole to drop into second place and narrowly miss out on a European Tour card.
What it did show was that anything can happen in Oman, so the next few weeks will be as important for those players looking to book their spots in the exclusive 45-man field as for those looking to cement their own graduation.
As ever, this race looks incredibly competitive, and shows both the high standard required to contend on the Challenge Tour and that consistency matters as much as notable one-off results.
Consider Martin Wiegele, for example. The Austrian won this season’s KPMG Trophy but, now in 44th place in the Rankings, will realise better than most that excelling on the Road to Oman requires a lot more than one good week – he is one of many who will be looking for one last push before booking tickets to Muscat.
The China chances
This week is the final European event on the 2017 schedule, with a much-needed week off – the first since early May – preceding a fortnight in China before the Tour reaches its conclusion in the Middle East.
The two Chinese tournaments are highly significant. With well over 700,000 Road to Oman points between them, they can make for a far less stressful trip to Ras Al Khaimah and Muscat if players can bank a timely strong finish ahead of a fortnight of desert heat.
From now on, however, the fields are limited – only the top 53 players in the post-Kazakhstan Rankings are guaranteed spots in the Hainan Open and the Foshan Open, meaning that for some, only a victory in the Basque country will secure them a potentially lucrative China trip.
The top 70
While focus inevitably falls on the top of leaderboards and the Rankings, for many players there will be as much interest in securing their playing rights for 2018 and removing some of the pressure from the year-ending Qualifying School.
The top 70 from the Road to Oman Rankings will retain full Challenge Tour status, something they will not otherwise guarantee without making the four-round cut at Q-School Final Stage – many of them will have to navigate Second Stage even to reach Lumine Golf and give themselves that opportunity.To call the race for the top 70 tight would be an understatement. There are only 91 points separating Ben Evans in 70th from Rhys Enoch in 71st, and only 10,000 points covering the next 30 places, putting a large number of players in with a shot of securing their immediate Challenge Tour futures with one good result.