The Challenge Tour returns to one of its popular destinations this week for the BMW Russian Open, where Jamie Donaldson of Wales took the first important stride towards creating his own piece of history 12 months ago.
Donaldson, in his first full season as a professional, captured the title at the magnificent Moscow Country Club on his way to finishing second on the Challenge Tour Rankings at the end of the year. That in itself was a superb achievement by the 26 year old from Macclesfield, but even more impressive was the fact that Donaldson went on to secure his card through The European Tour, finishing 96th on the Volvo Order of Merit.
In doing so, he became the first player to gain his full playing privileges through those two diverse methods and the field this week will contain many ambitious professionals seeking to emulate the Welshman, who closed with a 68 for an 18 under par total of 270.
This will be the seventh playing of the tournament at the Robert Trent Jones Jnr-designed layout situated at Nakhabino in the Krasnogorsky District, some 40 minutes drive from the centre of the city.
The 7,066-yard (6,460m) par 72 course has a magnificent setting, situated as it is in the heart of a forest where every hole is demanding. The finishing stretch is particularly tough, the closing four holes containing two par fives and a long par three before the par four 18th back to the clubhouse.
The tournament is the third of the ‘major’ events of the summer and an indication of the importance of the Moscow week is that every winner so far has progressed to The European Tour the following season.
No one is looking forward to the tournament more than Benn Barham, who finished tied fourth a year ago. Currently in 21st position in the Rankings, the Englishman says: “This is one of the best events of the year because the course is so good, as is the range, while the organisation is excellent and we stay on site in a first class hotel.
“Everyone looks forward to going to Moscow and because it is the only Tour event in Russia, the sponsors go out of their way to make sure everything is right.
“Last year I just made the cut on the mark but then returned 67 and 68 over the weekend to climb up the leaderboard. I holed a 30 footer for par after going in the water at the 15th, parred the short 16th, birdied the par five 17th from 12 feet, but dropped a shot at the last after failing to get up-and-down from a bunker.”
Players from just three nationalities have captured the Russian title in the past six years, three Englishmen, two Italians, and Welshman Donaldson.
The first Russian Open champion in 1996 was England’s Carl Watts, who was succeeded by Michele Reale from Italy, winning a play-off with Heinz Peter Thul from Germany.
Warren Bennett from England emerged victorious in 1998, one of the five titles he won that year on his way to topping the Rankings, while another Englishman, Iain Pyman, triumphed a year later. In 2000, the title went to Italy again in the capable hands of Marco Bernardini.
Both Bernardini and Pyman are in the 156-strong field that will be competing for a prize fund of €180,000 with €30,000 available to the winner. So a good week in Moscow could prove very lucrative, especially to those players both in and just outside the current top 15 who earned automatic promotion to The European Tour at the end of the season.