Wednesday, 27 December 2017
Tapio Pulkkanen  (Getty Images)
Tapio Pulkkanen (Getty Images)

As we review all the drama of the 2017 Challenge Tour season, we start with the players who led the way all year and ultimately defined the Road to Oman, the top five in the Rankings.

Every Challenge Tour campaign has a very clear and obvious focus: the top 15 in the Rankings, all of whom earn European Tour cards at the end of the season.

More than any other year, though, 2017 saw an additional focus placed on the very top places on the Road to Oman – those graduating at the top know they will have a greater chance of competing in the European Tour’s biggest tournaments, especially the newly-founded Rolex Series events.

As a result, even heading to the season-ending NBO Golf Classic Grand Final, there was everything to play for, with no one able to take their foot off the gas.

Well, not quite no one. Aaron Rai’s European Tour status had long been secured by virtue of three victories before the end of July – earning immediate promotion to the Race to Dubai – and though the Englishman could have stolen the Number One Ranking with a strong showing in Muscat, that would not have even improved his category for next season.

The story of Rai’s season has been told in great detail, and on multiple occasions, but it bears repeating for how remarkable it truly was: he required only nine events to notch up his three wins, with two further top tens in that run.

Having emotionally won the season-opener in Kenya, memorably accompanied by his Kenya-born mother making her first trip back to the country for 47 years, Rai immediately looked to be the dominant force on the 2017 Road to Oman.

The winning habit extended to the U.S. Open qualifying event at Walton Heath, earning the 22 year old a Major Championship debut, with other triumphs in Spain and France turning the Challenge Tour cub into a European Tour lion.

In fact, the only man to threaten Rai’s dominance in the first half of the season was Julian Suri, whose season proved to be no less remarkable.

The American was runner-up in the Open de Portugal at Morgado Golf Resort before taking a maiden victory at the D+D REAL Czech Challenge, threatening to go back-to-back in Switzerland the following week on his way to third place.

Rai looked to have a rival, but Suri did not hang around for long enough. Opting to take a rare opportunity to play on the European Tour at the Made in Denmark – a tournament where Rai himself finished in the top ten – Suri looked to the manor born on his way to an incredible four-shot victory.

It made Suri the first player in history to win full events on both the Challenge and European Tours in the same season, and made him a Race to Dubai player, removing him from the Road to Oman.

While Rai’s Rankings lead was commanding, of equal significance was his absence from the Challenge Tour events, many of them lucrative, in the second half of the season, and while the Englishman was playing on the European Tour, there were plenty of players waiting to take advantage.

Foremost among them was Tapio Pulkkanen. The Finn started the season in sensational form, vying for victories in Turkey and the Czech Republic but ultimately having to settle for second place on both occasions.

That form dipped slightly through the summer before the man in the distinctive trilby hat re-emerged as a force in the most timely fashion at the Kazakhstan Open, the most lucrative event on the schedule.

Two eagles on a bogey-free Moving Day took him within one of the lead in Almaty before a birdie on the penultimate hole in his final round earned Pulkkanen a spot in a play-off against Chase Koepka.

The pair matched each other over the first two nervy extra holes before Koepka’s errant tee shot ensured that Pulkkanen’s par was enough for a big victory that propelled him to the top of the Rankings.

With European Tour golf for 2018 secured, the 27 year old’s focus was on holding onto that Number One spot, with a runner-up finish in the Hainan Open all-but doing just that.

Indeed, arriving in Oman for the final event of the year, only a handful of players could mathematically catch him, and even then most of them would have needed to win to do so.

One of them nearly did just that.

Erik van Rooyen was the man who bettered Pulkkanen in Hainan and his Muscat late charge threatened to upset the Finn’s champagne as three early birdies from the South African in the final round of the season closed the gap.

However, with only victory sufficient, van Rooyen’s momentum stalled, his share of third place ultimately earning him third place on the Road to Oman and handing the Rankings shield to Pulkkanen.

Sandwiched between them was Clément Sordet, who capped the best season of his young career with victory in the Grand Final.

The Frenchman has long been earmarked as a coming man of European golf, winning two years ago on just his fourth outing as a professional, but his game had faltered since an early-season victory in Turkey in 2016.

Another strong showing in Turkey was all 2017 had offered until Sordet re-entered the winners’ circle at the Viking Challenge before a stirring late-season charge saw him soar up the Rankings.

Four sub-70 rounds in the penultimate event of the year in Ras Al Khaimah propelled Sordet into the top 15 for the first time all year and that form continued in Oman, a comfortable two-shot victory earning him second spot on the Road to Oman.

Completing the top five, behind Pulkkanen, Sordet, van Rooyen and Rai, was Marcus Kinhult, proof that the season-long campaign is as much about consistency as it is about big victories.

The Swede was one of six graduates not to win a tournament this season, but by every other measure it was an outstanding year, with just three missed cuts and no fewer than eight top tens, the joint-most of any graduate.

The 21 year old saved his best until last with a runner-up finish behind Sordet in Oman to seal his return to the European Tour and secure his place as one of the dominant forces on the Challenge Tour in 2017.

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