2017 will be remembered for several things: Aaron Rai’s three wins; Julian Suri’s astonishing and rapid elevation from Challenge Tour champion to European Tour winner; the outstanding performances from many of the 2016 graduates, Dylan Frittelli and Jordan Smith chief among them.
But above all, the 2017 Road to Oman was the Year of the Hat – Tapio Pulkkanen’s distinctive trilby headwear was swapped for the Rankings crown in Muscat, deserved recognition of sustained brilliance throughout the campaign.
In truth, the Finn’s emergence as a top class player has been long overdue. A talented teenager, he won on the Nordic Golf League as an amateur in 2012 and then finished runner-up on his first Challenge Tour start at the following year’s Challenge de Madrid.
However, he failed to build on those showings and spent two unremarkable years on the Challenge Tour before losing his full status and dropping back down to the Nordic Golf League once again for the 2015 season.
And what a season it was. An incredible five wins saw Pulkkanen deservedly top the Order of Merit and regain Challenge Tour status with renewed confidence and heightened expectations.
2016 proved to be another false dawn. He made only seven cuts on the Road to Oman, with a best finish coming on home soil at the Vierumäki Golf Challenge – and even that was only a share of 30th place.
All things considered, it is fair to say Pulkkanen was not among the usual suspects lining the ‘ones to watch’ lists for this season. He would soon be the name on everyone’s lips, though.
After missing the curtain raiser in Kenya, a relaxed Pulkkanen arrived at the Turkish Airlines Challenge and gave notice that when he is on his game, few others can match his scoring ability.
Allying his prodigious power off the tee with a new-found touch around the greens, his opening round of 62 featured ten birdies and an eagle and gave him a three-shot lead on ten under par.
He retained the advantage at the halfway stage and went head-to-head with Ryan Evans over the final 36 holes. It went down to the wire – Evans holed a long birdie putt on the 17th hole to extend his lead to two shots and put pressure on Pulkkanen.
The last hole at Gloria, however, is a par five – an eagle opportunity for someone with the Finn’s length. Not, though, if you find the water off the tee. Lesson learned, but a definite marker put down by Pulkkanen with his runner-up finish.
In fact, he never dropped out of the top 15 of the Rankings from that point onwards. A tied sixth finish in the next event in Portugal preceded another near miss at the D+D REAL Czech Challenge.
This time, Pulkkanen had a birdie chance on the penultimate hole of the tournament that would have tied the lead following an outstanding putt on the previous hole to close the gap to one. The putt on 17 stayed high, however, and, chasing a birdie on the last for a play-off, another tugged tee shot gave Suri a maiden victory.
The final six events on the Challenge Tour schedule assume heightened significance ever year and it is no accident that it was here that Pulkkanen showed his true class, following a relatively quiet summer.
Arriving at the Kazakhstan Open – the most lucrative event of the season – the big Finn looked like he meant business. Two eagles on a bogey-free Moving Day took him within one of the lead and set up a dramatic final day in Almaty.
With Pulkkanen still on course, Chase Koepka set the clubhouse target on 17 under par which the Finn duly matched thanks to a birdie on the penultimate hole, forcing a play-off.
After both players missed birdie efforts on the first extra hole and made steely up-and-downs for par on the second, it was ultimately Koepka’s errant tee shot on the next that meant Pulkkanen’s par was enough for his first Challenge Tour title – and a guaranteed European Tour place for 2018.
With the pressure off, the focus for the Finn was on that Number One spot in the Rankings. Heading to China, Pulkkanen contended once again at the Hainan Open, ultimately falling two shots shy of winner Erik van Rooyen.
That third runner-up finish of 2017 all but sealed Pulkkanen’s position as Challenge Tour Rankings winner – nobody then performed well enough in the final three tournaments of the year to catch him.
Few could argue with his success. In 20 tournaments, he made 16 cuts and finished in the top ten on five occasions, with a stroke average across the whole year of a fraction under 70 – outstanding golf, whichever way you look at it.His satisfaction at becoming the first ever Finn to win the Challenge Tour Rankings was clear for all to see in Oman and he now embarks on a rookie season in the Race to Dubai filled with the confidence of his top dog – and top hat – status.