Every Challenge Tour season brings its collection of near misses – the players who could, maybe should, have enjoyed a different narrative and won tournaments, even earned European Tour cards.
Remarkably, the hardest luck stories from 2016 found instant redemption this season. Adrien Saddier and Jens Dantorp, 17th and 19th respectively in last year’s Rankings, when the top 16 graduated, both bounced back from their disappointments to secure Race to Dubai spots for 2018.
Sandwiched between them was Aaron Rai, a quiet and quirky golfer from Wolverhampton. He was the headline act at the season-opening Barclays Kenya Open; within four months, he had already become a European Tour golfer.
Rai’s 2016 had been quietly impressive, much like the man himself. Having come through the previous year’s EuroPro Tour, it was his first full Road to Oman campaign, and he started putting himself in contention with increasing regularity and striking maturity.
Many observers had him marked as a rising star on the Challenge Tour as he arrived in Nairobi in March, and this was before the world had learned that his mother, accompanying her son that week, had been born in Kenya and never returned since leaving in 1970.
Adopted by the Kenyan faithful as one of their own, Rai romped to an emotional maiden Challenge Tour victory, tears flowing as mother and son embraced on the final green – still only 22 years old, Rai had arrived as a serious player.
The winning habit became a hard one to break. Just three tournaments later Rai had triumphed again, at the Andalucía Costa del Sol Match Play 9, before he ran away with U.S. Open Final Qualifying to earn himself a maiden Major Championship appearance.
Returning to Europe, Rai knew that one more Challenge Tour win, a third of the season, would secure immediate promotion to the European Tour, and he would not have to wait long for a return to the winners’ circle.
One month after his Major debut, he was at it again at Le Vaudreuil Golf Challenge, winning by five shots to secure his third victory in just nine Challenge Tour appearances in 2017 – which took him immediately onto the European Tour for the rest of the season.
Some impressive showings in the Race to Dubai followed – top tens in Denmark and at Valderrama among them – before Rai returned to the Road to Oman for a lap of honour at the season-ending NBO Golf Classic Grand Final, his last appearance under the Challenge Tour banner.
His record at this level is remarkable. In the 33 events he played since Turkey in May 2016, he missed only three cuts. He finished in the top ten on 11 occasions, including those three victories, and made almost €230,000 in a season-and-a-half on the Road to Oman – impressive numbers whichever way you look at them.
He now embarks on a rookie full season in the Race to Dubai buoyed by the confidence of being a three-time Challenge Tour winner, as well as having gained experience of seven European Tour events through the second half of the year.With a game and a demeanour that is consistently unruffled, regardless of the increasingly illustrious surroundings and company he has started to keep, Rai is sure to be one to watch on the European Tour in the coming years.