Double European Tour champion Mikko Ilonen and fellow Finn Antti Ahokas will take a summer break from The Race to Dubai this week to focus on building Finland’s growing reputation as a golfing destination.
Ilonen and Ahokas are joined by Challenge Tour regulars Roope Kakko, Toni Karjalainen and Mikko Korhonen to participate in the SK Golf Challenge at Linna Golf, Vanajanlinna, a superb venue which is part of The European Tour Properties portfolio.
Linna Golf, a Tim Lobb/European Golf Design course nestling among the scenic Finnish pine and birch forests just an hour’s drive north of the capital, Helsinki, will provide a spectacular setting for the second SK Golf Challenge following last year’s tournament at St Laurence Golf.
This year’s move to Linna has attracted a strong field containing not only the five leading Finns but also Finnish-born Ryder Cup player Jarmo Sandelin and 11 out of 14 of this season’s Challenge Tour winners.
For 29 year old Ilonen from the town of Lahti, who captured the Enjoy Jakarta Indonesia Open and the Scandinavian Masters on The European Tour in 2007, it is a case of enjoying home comforts at the venue to which he is attached.
“It’s important to have a Challenge Tour event in Finland for the development of the game here” said Ilonen. “This event is important for our young players as it will give them opportunities to play to a high level. It was great that SK Festivals took on the event last year after a few years where we didn’t have an event in Finland and I believe it’s important to have a company like that on board.
“It’s also great for Linna Golf, which is part of European Tour Properties, to be on the Challenge Tour because hopefully everyone can see what it takes to host an event which can grow to the extent of hosting a European Tour event in the future. Now that would be great for our country!”
Ilonen added: “It’s a great facility with tremendous facilities and I have a good relationship with the people attached to the hotel and golf club. There are a lot of good young players in Finland who are establishing themselves on the Challenge Tour and then there are quite a few promising young amateur players who can hopefully develop into top players.”
Sharing top billing with Ilonen is a Jarmo Sandelin, who was born in Finland and took up Swedish nationality after his family moved to Sweden. His participation on the Challenge Tour will deflect some of the pressure from his Finnish friend.
Ilonen, who will stay at his home only 50 minutes from the course, laughed : “I think Jarmo is the only non-Finnish player on Tour who can understand the language! He might have moved to Sweden but he is still very popular in Finland. He will be a big draw.”
Sandelin, born in Imatra before moving to Stockholm as a youngster, still has a close affinity with Finland and the Finnish people, who have always considered him as a fellow countryman.
The 42 year old, who has won five times on The European Tour, will enhance the profile of the event, with his colourful dress and designer golf shoes and belts which make him one of the most easily recognisable players on Tour.
“It is great that I managed to fit the SK Golf Challenge into my calendar,” he said. “It is always wonderful to visit Finland although I haven´t played too much tournament golf there. I have once visited Vanajanlinna as a guest of Mikko and I liked the course a lot.
”I have been able to see Finnish professional golf scene starting from ‘ground zero’ to where it is nowadays. The development of the game has been tremendous and I felt delighted about Mikko´s two victories on The European Tour. I am also excited about the opportunity to check on new guys on the Challenge Tour.”
Kakko, who has accrued €157,145 after two top ten finishes on The European Tour this season to lie 129th in The Race to Dubai rankings, will be bidding to follow up his superb success of five years ago when he won the Finnish Open as an amateur.
Now a fully fledged professional, Kakko, who defeated Phillip Archer of England and Swede Johan Axgren in a play-off in 2004 at Espoon Golfseura, seeks his second Challenge Tour title in the 2009 edition of the SK Golf Challenge, which was inaugurated last year.
Kakko said: “This year will be the first time I’ve played a professional event in Finland since my win in 2004, so even though it’s a different tournament five years later, I still feel like I’ve got a title to defend!”
Kakko stressed the importance of holding a Challenge Tour event in Finland, to raise the game’s profile in the country and also to enable its amateurs to benefit from playing against some of the finest young golfers in Europe.
He said: “It’s so important to have a Challenge Tour event in Finland, to give the guys who don’t have a category – or who don’t have a very good category – the chance to play. If you play well enough, there’s always the chance you might pick up some sponsors’ invitations, and increase your chance of playing in more events the following season. It’s the same with the amateurs, because it gives them the chance to experience a professional tournament.”
Last year’s champion, Simon Robinson of England, returns to Finland to defend the title he won in some style in 2008, when he fired a closing 63 to win at St Laurence Golf by six shots.
Also competing are recent Challenge Tour winners Rhys Davies of Wales and England’s Ryder Cup player Peter Baker along with fellow 2009 champions Edoardo Molinari – the current leader of the Challenge Tour Rankings - Andrew Butterfield, Christoph Günther of Germany, Frenchman François Calmels, Lee James, Robert Coles and Gary Boyd, all from England, Argentina’s Alan Wagner and Jamie McLeary of Scotland, winner of last week’s Scottish Hydro Challenge.
Set in the midst of some of Finland’s finest pine and birch forests, Linna Golf at Vanajanlinna represents an outstanding addition to the European Tour Properties portfolio and one which has already been recognised by Golf Digest Sweden magazine, who named Linna Golf as “the best new resort in Northern Europe”.
The championship course makes full use of the natural environment with rocky outcrops, water features and dense woodland all combining to create a varied, challenging round.
This is a course that will appeal to all standards of golfers, with a flexible configuration of tee positions. From the tournament tees, the course measures 7,245 yards and each hole has its own visual splendour and rewards the player with beautiful, panoramic views. The 18th is worth the anticipation, with an over-water approach shot presenting a final, spectacular challenge.
Alongside the golf, the venue boasts conference facilities and comfortable accommodation within the exquisite Vanajan Linna Hotel & Restaurant. This historic former hunting lodge perfectly complements the quality of the golf course, with exceptional rooms and fine Finnish dining.