As we review all the drama of the 2017 Challenge Tour season, we look at the players whose European Tour graduation was in doubt right up until the final two weeks of the season, in some cases until the final putt dropped in Oman.
For some players, the season finale in Muscat can be a hugely enjoyable event – signing off from Challenge Tour life, assured of Race to Dubai spots, it is one last opportunity to enjoy a sunny week with friends and family, the pressure off.
For others, it is the most important and tortuous week of their careers as they desperately try to control their fraying nerves and secure one final result that will earn a place in the top 15 of the Rankings.
Jens Dantorp knows this hardship better than most. In 2016, his fate was in his own hands as he stood on the 18th tee on the final day of the season. A pulled tee shot, a short approach, a tough bunker shot and a nervy missed par putt condemned the Swede to second place, not quite enough to gatecrash the graduates at the 11th hour.
In truth, 2017 looked like it might be heading in the same direction. Until September, the 28 year old’s best result had been a tie for 20th in the season-opening Barclays Kenya Open, and even top tens in Ireland and Spain in the autumn left him with a lot of work to do ahead of the Middle East finale.
The Ras Al Khaimah 2017 Golf Challenge, the penultimate event of the season, saw Dantorp already drinking in the last chance saloon, needing a good result even to climb into the top 45 in the Rankings and contest the following week’s Grand Final.
It did not look to be going his way. At the halfway stage, he trailed leader Chase Koepka by six shots. However, a bogey-free Moving Day closed the gap to one and put Dantorp in the final pair for the fourth round.
Once again, Dantorp did not drop a shot all day. As Koepka faltered, Adrian Meronk set the clubhouse target on 15 under par. The 18th at Al Hamra Golf Club is a reachable par five. Dantorp, 14 under par as he reached the tee, rolled the dice.
On in two. Putt for eagle, and the win. It just stayed high, meaning a play-off was required.
Cometh the hour, cometh Jens. Playing 18 again, the Swede’s approach shot ranks among the great shots of this, or indeed any, Challenge Tour season. Six foot for eagle, and this time the putt dropped – a second career title, four years after his first, and European Tour golf back in reach.
There was still work to do, but leaving it late seems to be very much Dantorp’s style. A closing 66 at the NBO Golf Classic Grand Final catapulted him 14 places up the leaderboard into a share of fifth, comfortably securing 11th place in the Rankings and a return to the Race to Dubai.
Another man finding immediate redemption was Adrien Saddier, whose 2016 had ended in exactly the same fashion as Dantorp’s, with a dropped shot on the final hole of the season costing him a place among last year’s graduates.
That ‘nearly man’ tag followed him around for all of the 2017 campaign as he began with a runner-up finish in Kenya and matched it at the Made in Denmark Challenge.
The prestigious Rolex Trophy offered Saddier’s best chance to re-enter the winners’ circle following his 2016 Challenge de España victory.
He trailed by two at the start of play but was leading within two holes and held a one-shot advantage coming up the 18th before three-putting to take it to a play-off with Pedro Oriol.
A wayward waterbound tee shot ultimately meant the Frenchman collected a third second place finish of the season, but left him in a strong position in the Rankings, where he would ultimately finish in 13th spot.
In all, it was an excellent year for the 25 year old. He missed only three cuts – one of which was an injury withdrawal – in 18 Road to Oman appearances, and ended it with a return to the European Tour following a four-year absence.
The most nervous men on the 2017 Challenge Tour were Scott Fernandez and Bradley Neil, neither of whom could have left it later to secure their own graduation.
The projected Rankings after the third round of the NBO Golf Classic Grand Final did not make for pretty reading for either player, with both sitting just outside the top 15 as things stood.
Performances of other players – notably Estanislao Goya and Oliver Lindell – would prove to be a factor, but Fernandez and Neil knew they had ground to make up over the final 18 holes of the year, and each went about it in some style.
Both men turned in 33 to climb the leaderboard, though nothing could be taken for granted. Neil mixed back nine birdies with untimely bogeys and dropped another shot on the 17th hole to add pressure playing the last.
A steely par, when a bogey would have seen him pay the ultimate price, was enough for the Scot to take the 15th and final European Tour spot in the Rankings, though with players still out on course he had a nervous wait.
One of those still playing was Fernandez, who also faltered on the penultimate hole. In what he would later describe as ‘the greatest bogey of my life,’ the Spaniard holed a long putt to limit the damage before parring the last – like Neil, one more dropped shot would have been fatal.
Ultimately, Fernandez finished in a share of third, equalling his best Challenge Tour result, for his fifth top ten of the season – the same number as Neil, whose graduation was spearheaded by back-to-back runner-up finishes in July.
While Fernandez and Neil took the final two spots in the Rankings, another man also embarking on a rookie season on the European Tour is Steven Brown, just reward for his remarkable consistency throughout the campaign.
From June’s KPMG Trophy to the Prague Golf Challenge a month later, the Englishman was a cumulative 51 under par across four tournaments, three of which were top five finishes.
Indeed, from the start of June, the 30 year old made 18 straight cuts, pushing for victories in consecutive tournaments in England and Ireland in September before further top tens in Kazakhstan and Ras Al Khaimah sealed his spot in the top 15, with Brown ultimately taking the 12th card.
As has long been known, there is more than one way to earn a European Tour card from the Challenge Tour, whether leaving it late like Dantorp, Fernandez and Neil or performing with sustained excellence throughout the campaign like Brown and Saddier.
However, all five men look well equipped to tackle the additional challenges of Race to Dubai golf and will be even stronger for their experiences in graduating in 2017.