Thursday, 14 December 2017
Ryan Evans (photo by Turkish Airlines)  (European Tour)
Ryan Evans (photo by Turkish Airlines) (European Tour)

As we review all the drama of the 2017 Challenge Tour season, we look at the players whose year-long excellence and consistency saw them earn spots in the top ten of the Rankings.

As it turns out, it is not winning that counts. The five players who finished between sixth and tenth on the Road to Oman did so mainly based on sustained form throughout the whole campaign, allying notable results with grinding top tens and made cuts on their way to European Tour graduation.

Ten tournament winners from the 2017 season finished between 16th and 45th in the Rankings, with a further two not even building on their victories to qualify for the Grand Final. Such is the standard on the Challenge Tour these days – one good week is no longer enough to define a season, and the latest graduates are the strongest example of this.

There were victories, of course. Julien Guerrier’s two titles earned him an outside chance of topping the Rankings going into the finale of the season but with a Race to Dubai spot all tied up, the Frenchman was content to relax and enjoy his last week as a Challenge Tour player.

It felt unsurprising and slightly overdue to see the 32 year old break through and finally start to fulfil the potential he had shown as an amateur, most notably when winning the Amateur Championship in 2006.

An early-season victory on home soil at the Hauts de France Golf Open was followed by a timely autumnal success in Ireland, sealing his return to the European Tour after he had previously gained status through Qualifying School in 2009 and 2011.

Guerrier’s year was not all about the wins, however. He was runner-up in Prague and shared fourth place at the Bridgestone Challenge, but it was his third place in the early-season Turkish Airlines Challenge that really set him up for the year ahead.

That tournament was won by Ryan Evans, a maiden Challenge Tour win for the Englishman, though he, more than any other player this year, was defined by his other results.

Not to downplay his victory in Belek. Going head-to-head with Tapio Pulkkanen, who would ultimately win the Rankings, over the final 36 holes, the 30 year old held his nerve impressively at the death for the most significant result of his career to date.

However, it was the form Evans found in the summer that really stood out. In six straight Challenge Tour appearances from Le Vaudreuil Golf Challenge in July up to and including the Bridgestone Challenge in September, Evans finished in the top ten every time.

Awarding himself the nickname ‘Top Ten’ midway through that sequence, Evans fully justified his billing – in 22 rounds in that run, he was only over par on two occasions, earning just shy of 40,000 points in total.

The result that sealed his graduation came at the highly lucrative Foshan Open, where his share of third place eased some of the pressure going into the final two events of the year.

That week’s champion was Oliver Farr, returning to the winners’ circle after a three-year absence, and that result helped the Welshman finish one spot higher than Evans in seventh place on the Road to Oman.

The pair were room-mates in Foshan, sharing memorable photos on social media before playing together in the final group on Day Four and then again after the tournament, with both men able to celebrate the security of European Tour golf for 2018.

Other than a third place in the Czech Republic, Farr’s season had not really threatened to have such a glorious conclusion. However, the final six events of the year always carry added significance, as well as some of the heftier prize funds of the season, and it was now that the 29 year old shone.

A top ten in the Kazakhstan Open was followed by a share of third place in Spain and a tie for seventh in the first of the back-to-back Chinese events, the Hainan Open.

That victory arrived the next week was little surprise given how his form had been trending and, having also graduated from the Rankings in 2014, Farr deserved his return to the European Tour.

The two players occupying ninth and tenth place in this year’s Rankings have taken very different routes to the top of the Challenge Tour and ultimately graduation.

Chase Koepka only arrived in Europe in the summer of 2016 bearing an unmistakable surname, though a very different golf game to his elder brother Brooks – himself a Challenge Tour graduate in 2013.

It did not take long for Chase to make his mark on the 2017 campaign, pushing Joel Girrbach all the way at the Swiss Challenge presented by ASG on his way to a share of third place, his best result as a professional at that point.

Three weeks later came another top five in Denmark, then three weeks after there was another near miss as four rounds in the 60s saw the American finish runner-up at the Italian Challenge Open by Lyoness.

Another top five in Norway preceded the next ‘one that got away’ as the 23 year old’s final round of 66 earned him a play-off in the Kazakhstan Open – the most lucrative tournament on the schedule.

Up against Pulkkanen, there was nothing between the pair over the first two extra holes before Koepka’s errant tee shot handed the Finn the title, though the Floridian could console himself with the knowledge that European Tour status was assured thanks to another second place finish.

Perhaps his best chance to win came in Ras Al Khaimah, where a victory could have given him a chance of topping the Rankings. Leading going into the final round, Koepka had been relaxed all week, but he faltered on the fourth day.

Even an eye-watering 11 on one hole at the following week’s Grand Final could not spoil Koepka’s year as he earned a rookie season on the European Tour, but Oriol entered the finale feeling like he still had some work to do.

The Spaniard, twice a European Tour card-winner through Q-School, had played 82 Challenge Tour tournaments before this season, only finishing in the top three on two occasions.

A runner-up finish in the KPMG Trophy in June, followed by another top ten in Scotland a few weeks later, showed that the 31 year old had matured into a consistent and competitive golfer.

He was knocking on the door once again in Sweden, leading by two strokes at the halfway stage and ultimately finishing in fourth place, before the breakthrough finally came in Geneva.

The prestigious Rolex Trophy is only contested by the top 42 players on the Road to Oman and the last three winners – Dylan Frittelli, Nacho Elvira and Byeong Hun An – have gone on to win the following season’s Graduate of the Year award.

Oriol was six shots off the pace going into the final round but fired an impressive 65 to set the clubhouse target, though Adrien Saddier had a one-shot lead by the time he came to the 18th hole.

The Frenchman found the green in regulation but two nervous putts led to a tap-in bogey and a play-off. Saddier then dramatically put his tee shot into the water, allowing a nervous Oriol to win the tournament with a regulation par.

Though mathematically probable to graduate, Oriol wanted to take his fate into his own hands in the season finale in Muscat.

He duly delivered, with a share of seventh place sealing his European Tour return in tenth spot in the Rankings.

In all, Guerrier, Farr, Evans, Koepka and Oriol had 29 top tens between them, including five victories, and it is this level of consistency that should stand them in good stead as they embark on 2018 in the Race to Dubai.

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