The European Challenge Tour season came to an enthralling climax at the Apulia San Domenico Grand Final where Mark Pilkington of Wales was crowned the Number One player of the season after taking second place behind England’s James Hepworth in the last event of the season.
As is always the case at the last Challenge Tour event of the year, the tension at the beautiful San Domenico Golf was palpable with the top 45 players on the Rankings battling for the 20 available European Tour cards on offer through the Challenge Tour.
In the end, most of the movement at the business end of the Rankings came within the top 20 itself, with Hepworth the only man in the field who was outside the top 20 at the start of the week breaking into the higher echelons of the Rankings with his wonderful victory.
Taking a three shot lead into the final round, the Englishman kept his nerves in check to put on a performance full of composure as he posted a fourth round 69 to move to 13 under par 271 and win by two from Pilkington, Rafael Echenique of Argentina and the Swede Alexander Noren.
Hepworth’s first prize of €42,800 saw him make a huge leap up the Rankings, from 29th to fifth place, while Echenique and Noren were also safely within the top ten, finishing the season in seventh and third spot respectively.
Hepworth could not contain his joy upon realising he had completed a dream week and landed a place on The 2007 European Tour.
“This is the best day of my career,” he said. “This week just could not have been any better for me – it has been an absolute dream and I could not have wished for any more coming into this tournament.
“I can’t wait to get up to The European Tour. It’s been a long old season but this has made all the work worthwhile. I have a lot of people to thank, and I have to mention my coach Bill Ferguson fro Harogate as well as my great friend Mark Pullen who has caddied for me a lot this year.”
Pilkington’s cheque for €19,156 was good enough to see him leapfrog Johan Axgren of Sweden at the top of the Rankings and be crowned the Number One player of the season.
Such a result seemed unlikely just five weeks ago, but Pilkington hit top form at just the right stage of the season to win the richest Challenge Tour event in the Challenge Tour’s history at the Kazakhstan Open and move to second place on the Rankings.
He brought a similar level of performance to the Grand Final, and closed out a fantastic week with a four under par 67 to take second spot behind Hepworth.
“I’m delighted to win the Rankings,” said Pilkington. “Getting the card for the Tour was the main priority for the season, but, after winning in Kazakhstan, the priorities changed and it feels great to be the Number One player of the season.
“In football terms it’s a bit like winning the league as opposed to the cup, and there is definitely an extra satisfaction in winning the Order of Merit.”
While Hepworth, Pilkington and the other 18 graduates basked in the satisfaction of winning a place on The European Tour, a thought should be spared for Argentina’s Hernan Rey, who missed out on he top 20 by less than €2000.