Gary Wolstenholme (Getty Images)
Given the strength in depth on the Challenge Tour trying to pick a winner is something of a lottery, but few players will feel quite as home at Stoke by Nayland Hotel, Golf and Spa – the venue for this week’s English Challenge – as England’s Gary Wolstenholme, MBE.
At the start of the month, Wolstenholme – twice a winner of the Amateur Championship during a stellar amateur career – captured his first title since turning professional last year when he triumphed by four shots at the EuroPro Tour event held at the Essex venue.
Wolstenholme held off the likes of the Club’s touring professional Jamie Moul and his fellow former Walker Cup player Luke Goddard, both of whom have returned to Stoke by Nayland Hotel, Golf and Spa for the inaugural €150,000 event.
The 49 year old, who famously defeated a young Tiger Woods at the 1995 Walker Cup just before the American turned professional, is making his first Challenge Tour appearance of the season, but is hoping it will not be his last.
He said: “I’ve been playing some really good golf over the last six months – even if nobody would say my swing was particularly classical. My distance control’s pretty good, and I can get round the golf course. But I’d been pretty hit and miss with my putting, which was the difference between me winning and finishing fifth or sixth. Then I changed my putter just before the Stoke by Nayland event on the EuroPro Tour, which I tend to do every now and then, and it proved as good as a rest. All of a sudden, from being hit and miss, suddenly I couldn’t miss!
“I shot a 69 on the first day and felt pretty good, then on the second day I shot a 63 and felt even better. I parred the first six holes, then had five birdies in a row from the seventh hole. I dropped a shot after missing a short putt on the 13th, but then finished with five birdies. So I’d birdied 10 of the last 12 holes, which proved I was capable of still doing it. I don’t care what anyone says, you’re always looking to prove to yourself that you’re still able to compete – nobody else can tell me whether or not I’m still a good player. So it was a fantastic feeling, and I carried that into the final day.
“I’m currently third in the EuroPro Tour Order of Merit, so if I can manage to finish in the top five come the end of the season, then that’ll get me a Challenge Tour category for next year. It’s highly unlikely that I’d play a full season, but if I could find a couple of courses that suit my game, then I’d love to play more events on the Challenge Tour. The same goes for The European Tour – I just want to play as much as I can, because I love the game.”
Wolstenholme’s love of the game has seen him win on all five continents of the world at amateur level, but he admits that after deciding to join the professional ranks last year in preparation for a planned stint on the Senior Tour, he initially felt like a little boy lost.
He said: “After turning pro, I didn’t really have a schedule planned or even a category on any Tour. From being one of the bigger fish in a little pond, all of a sudden I was a small fish in a very big pond. So from being able to play wherever and whenever I wanted as an amateur, all of a sudden I didn’t really have any tournaments to play in, and it was killing me. All I’ve ever wanted to do is play golf, because I love the game, and all of a sudden the opportunity had been taken away from me. But then I got onto the EuroPro Tour through the qualifying school, and I’ve taken it from there.
“I don’t really have any expectations coming into the week – I just want to go out there and enjoy myself. If I play and putt as well as I did during the EuroPro Tour event, then I’d feel pretty confident of challenging. I never turn up to any tournament expecting to win, but I always turn up expecting to give 100 per cent and to do myself justice. All I can do is to give it my best shot. The standard out here on the Challenge Tour is very high, and it doesn’t help that I’ll probably be the shortest off the tee by some distance. But I’m not really competing against the other guys in the field – I’m competing against the course. If I can shoot four rounds in the 60s then I’ll be happy, irrespective of where that sees me finish. I can only control the ‘controllables’, as they say.
“And what you can guarantee is that the course will be in great condition. It’s a very good golf course here – you ask any of the pros over the next few days, and I’m sure they’ll say the same thing. They’ve made a great effort in getting everything ready and up to standard, so they have to be commended for that. They’ve emptied two lakes on to the course to get it to the standards they’d like, which shows the effort and expense which has gone into the tournament. So we should all hopefully be in for a great week.”