With a new year upon us and a fresh season still in its infancy, we’ve taken a look at the European Challenge Tour’s 2017 graduates who successfully kept their cards for the 2019 season.
Despite none of our alumni managing to enter the winners’ circle in their first full season on Europe’s top tier, there were numerous stand-out performances.
In total, eight of 2017’s top 15 retained their playing privileges for 2019, one of whom was Graduate of the Year Erik van Rooyen.
The South African graduated in third in the Challenge Tour’s Rankings following victory at the Hainan Open, and enjoyed a successful campaign on the European Tour in 2018.
He finished 38th in the Race to Dubai Rankings presented by Rolex, the highest of any 2017 Challenge Tour graduate, after attaining five top tens in his debut season.
He came runner-up to Shubhankar Sharma at the Joburg Open and tenth at the Tshwane Open in the early part of the season, but his best result was undoubtedly his tied fourth finish at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open hosted by The Rory Foundation, the fourth Rolex Series event of the year.
The 28 year old led going into the final round at Ballyliffin, the venue for the Irish Open, but a closing 74 meant he finished two shots off the pace and had to settle for fourth.
Another graduate who made a big impression in 2018 was Marcus Kinhult.
Finishing 49th in the Race to Dubai, Kinhult secured three top tens in 2018, including a third place at the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters.
However, much like van Rooyen, the Swede’s best week came during a Rolex Series event, the HNA Open de France.
With rounds of 65-67 on Day Two and Three, Kinhult took a two-shot advantage into the final round but a five over 76 on Day Four curtailed any chance of him finishing on top as Alex Noren emerged victorious.
The man who wears two gloves, Aaron Rai, is another graduate to keep his card for 2019.
After earning graduation to the top tier with three Challenge Tour wins in 2017, Rai made the step up and finished 58th in the Race to Dubai in his maiden season.
Top tens at the Hero Indian Open, BMW International Open, Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open and the Nedbank Golf Challenge hosted by Gary Player ensured he kept his card for 2019 and earned more than €650,000 in prize money.
If 2018 was a year to lay the foundations, 2019 looks like it’s the year to attack for Rai. The Englishman secured his first European Tour title in the season-opening Honma Hong Kong Open presented by Amundi.
Taking a six-shot overnight lead into the final round, Rai had the simple task of keeping his competitors at arms’ length, which he just about managed despite Matt Fitzpatrick’s best efforts, who cut his compatriot’s margin of victory to just one shot.
Rai starts the calendar year second in the Race to Dubai having teed it up just once in the 2019 season.
A two-time winner on the Challenge Tour, Jens Dantorp will continue his European Tour career in 2019.
He first won on Europe’s second tier in 2013 at the Rolex Trophy before triumphing at the Ras Al Khaimah, 2017 Golf Challenge en route to graduating in the top 15.
He finished in money 18 times out of 30 starts in 2018, with his best placing coming in the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open.
Much like his fellow graduates van Rooyen and Kinhult, Dantorp led going into the final round of a Rolex Series event.
The Swede birdied the final three holes to snatch a one-shot lead heading into the final round, and despite a closing 68, Dantorp had to settle for a share for third place as Brandon Stone blitzed the field with a round of 60 to take the title.
Tapio Pulkkanen, the 2017 Challenge Tour Number One, ended the season 78th in the Race to Dubai after a year yielding three top tens.
It took him only two events to secure his first top ten, finishing tied third at the Joburg Open, but he was forced to wait a further ten months before he broke into the top 20 again.
A 12 under par total at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship ensured he picked up his biggest prize money cheque to date – €208,728 – after finishing fourth in Scotland in October.
Missed cuts followed in his next two events but he bounced back in style at the Turkish Airlines Open, coming tenth in Antalya.
Just eight places below Pulkkanen in the Race to Dubai was Julien Guerrier, who finished 86th after his first full season on the European Tour since 2010.
The Frenchman finished in the top ten on four occasions in 2018, the first of those providing him with his best finish of the year.
He finished third at the NBO Oman Open, Guerrier’s third event of the year, and went on to place tied ninth at the Open de España, and sixth at the Rocco Forte Sicilian Open.
As the second half of the season arrived, Guerrier achieved one more top ten, finishing tied ninth at the D+D Real Czech Masters before securing his playing privileges by making all-but-one cuts in his remaining nine events.
Steven Brown is the seventh and final graduate to retain his card by finishing in the top 110 in the Race to Dubai.
The Englishman graduated in 12th place in the Challenge Tour Rankings following a superb seven top ten finishes, and he ended 2018 in 97th in the Race to Dubai.
Missing just one cut in his first six events stood him in good stead to retain his card and a tied seventh finish at the Rocco Forte Sicilian Open reaffirmed his European Tour credentials.
Following a dip in form in the middle part of the season, Brown secured his best result of the season in September’s Made in Denmark as he lost in a play-off to Matt Wallace.
Four Englishmen – Brown, Jonathan Thomson, Wallace and Lee Westwood – all finished on 19 under par in Denmark and after birdieing the first extra hole, Brown and Wallace returned to the 18th as Thomson and Westwood bowed out with pars.
However, Wallace again carded a birdie at the second attempt while Brown could only manage par, therefore being denied his maiden European Tour win.
Despite finishing 132nd in the Race to Dubai, Clément Sordet, who graduated from the Challenge Tour in 2017, retained his playing status through Qualifying School.
The Frenchman finished tied tenth in his first event of the 2018 campaign, the UBS Hong Kong Open, and was unable to better that as the season went on.
Therefore he teed it up at the marathon Q-School Final Stage at Lumine Golf Club and successfully navigated six rounds to finish eighth and secure his card for the 2019 season.