The European Tour’s 20 newest Members have been handed their cards following Carl Suneson of Spain’s victory at the Apulia San Domenico Grand Final, where he recorded a one shot victory from the man who finished the year as the European Challenge Tour’s Number One – Marc Warren of Scotland.
On a day of genuine drama and intensity, the Challenge Tour Rankings race came down to a thrilling finish, with Warren taking the Number One spot by just €448 from Suneson, while Finland’s Toni Karjalainen held on the last of the 20 available Tour cards.
In between Warren and Karjalainen, there was lots of movement within the top 20, while Ireland’s Stephen Browne managed to break into the Challenge Tour’s elite at the expense of Brad Sutterfield of the USA, who began the week in 19th place but finished in arguably the worst position of them all – 21st.
For Suneson, who posted a final round 68 for a 15 under par aggregate of 273, it was one of the happiest days of his career, while Warren will have to wait only three weeks to reap the rewards of his fantastic season when he joins the likes of Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh at the HSBC Champions tournament in China as the 2005 Challenge Tour Number One.
With the sun rising over the glorious San Domenico Golf Club, the Challenge Tour’s day of destiny had come, at the end of which 20 of the 45 players in the field would be rewarded with a potentially priceless place on The 2006 European Tour.
As is always the case with the Challenge Tour’s Grand Final, there was so much to play for over the fourth round of the season ending event, with the battle for the Number One spot on the Rankings wide open, and the tension packed fight for the last of the 20 Tour cards on offer yet to be decided.
With a prize fund of €250,000, every player in the field was capable of breaking into the top 20 on the Rankings if results went go their way
After a nerve jangling wait for the fourth round round, which was increased by the 24 hour delay to the final round, the players at the head of the leaderboard were all eyeing that prized Number One Spot.
Third round leader Marco Ruiz of Paraguay could top the Rankings with victory, but, he was being stalked by England’s Benn Barham, Suneson of Warren – all of whom were within a few strokes of Ruiz’s 13 under par, three round aggregate.
At the other end of the Rankings, the focus moved to Karjalainen in 20th place on the money list, and the Sutterfield, who occupied 19th place at the start of the day. Respectively five and two under par at the start of the day, those two players were being stalked by the likes of Ireland’s Stephen Browne and the English pair of Lee James and James Hepworth – all three of whom were looking to steal Karjalianen and Sutterfield’s places among the top 20.
As the final round progressed, Sutterfield began to look in danger of falling out of the top 20, while Karjalainen was clinging onto his dream ticket to The European Tour.
As the leaders got their rounds underway, Barham, Hepworth, Suneson and Warren made immediate inroads on Ruiz’s lead with birdies at the first, with Suneson picking up another stroke on the second to tie the Paraguayan at the head of the field. Ruiz’s response was instant as he birdied the third but fell back into a tie with Suneson by making bogey on the fourth. It was then the turn of the Spaniard to drop back with a bogey at the fifth, while Barham picked up a shot on the same hole.
With the focus on that final group, Warren was doing some sterling group in the match ahead, reaching the turn in two under 33 before picking up another birdie on the tenth to move to 12 under for the tournament.
Bogeys on the seventh for Ruiz and the ninth for Barham made it a four way tie at the top of the leaderboard between Barham, Ruiz, Suneson and Warren, before Suneson managed to edge ahead with a birdie on the tenth.
While the battle for the lead thundered on, the tension packed fight for the last few European Tour cards was simmering nicely. Sutterfield, who looked likely to drop out of the top 20 after falling back to one under, rallied superbly with four birdies over his last six holes to finish on five under, but then could only look on as Sullivan and Browne increased their chances of overtaking him. The Irishman birdied the 13th and 14 to move to 11 under, and put himself in a great position to knock Sutterfield out of the all important top 20.
Such is the nature of the Grand Final, the focus moved again – this time onto Argentina’s Daniel Vancsik who powered his way into contention with three birdies in row from the 11th to 13th.
Suneson responded to that charge with another birdie on the 11th to move into a two shot lead on 14 under, with Barham, Ruiz, Vancsik and Warren his closest challengers. The Spaniard picked up another shot on the 12th to move to 15 under and retain his two shot advantage over Warren and Vancsik, who both picked up further stokes to keep the chase alive.
As the tournament cam down its closing stages, Vancsik posted the clubhouse lead of 14 under, which was soon to be matched by Warren, leaving Suneson, who won the Rankings in 1998, needing a par four at the 18th to take the title. The 38 year old found the green in two but left his third shot four feet short of the cup, leaving the most testing of par putts that he buried in the middle of the hole to secure the €42,800 first prize that took him to second on the Rankings.
“I can’t describe what this feels like or means to me,” said Suneson, moments after signing the winning scorecard. “I wouldn’t wish that final putt I had on anyone, but I made it and it’s awesome to be going back to The European Tour because it has been a long hard battle for me to get back up to that level and hopefully I can stay there for years to come.”
Warren was similarly delighted. “It’s an amazing feeling to be the best player on the Challenge Tour considering the amount of good players there are out here. It’s a tremendous feeling and I didn’t think it was possible six months ago,” he smiled.