Oscar Floren (Getty Images)
The European Challenge Tour season reaches a pivotal point this week with the sixth staging of the Kazakhstan Open, which traditionally plays a significant role in the end of season Rankings.
With a prize fund of €400,000 the tournament is the second most lucrative on the Challenge Tour schedule – after the dual ranking SAINT OMER OPEN presented by Neuflize OBC – making the trophy, and first prize, highly coveted.
Previous winners include last year’s Challenge Tour champion Edoardo Molinari, of Italy, who followed in the footsteps of England’s Gary Lockerbie, Sweden’s Leif Westerberg, Wales’ Mark Pilkington and Ireland’s Stephen Browne, who all subsequently graduated onto The European Tour.
That will be the aim of those players heading to Zhailjau Golf Resort, in Almaty, this week, with the all important current top 20 in the Rankings aiming to consolidate their position while those outside will hope to strengthen their European Tour aspirations.
At the front of the queue is Challenge Tour Rankings leader Oscar Floren, who plays for the first time since his maiden victory in the SWALEC Wales Challenge.
The Swede, who also finished runner up in the ECCO Tour Championship prior to his win in Wales, was tied 13th last year and will be looking to improve on that performance to effectively seal a European Tour card for 2011.
Floren has already amassed €90,202 this season and the winner’s cheque of €64,000 would mean he would follow Molinari in graduating from the Challenge Tour.
Similarly Robert Dinwiddie, who is second in the Rankings, will be targeting the tournament as the one to rediscover his form. The Englishman missed the cut last week in Strasbourg but has recorded six top ten finishes so far this season, including a victory in the Kenya Open.
While Molinari’s victory last year contributed towards his record season earnings and dominance of the Rankings, only €3,154 currently separates Floren and Dinwiddie, with the potential for a new leader following the Kazakhstan Open.
Spaniard Alvaro Velasco will be looking to keep his momentum up after moving to sixth in the Rankings after just missing out on his second win of the season in last week’s ALLIANZ Europen de Strasbourg-Golf de la Wantzenau.
Velasco, who won the Fred Olsen Challenge de España earlier in the season, was joint runner up in France with American Ryan Blaum, Italian Lorenzo Gagli and Englishman Steve Tiley behind the French amateur Romain Wattel.
Such is the prize fund that even a top ten finish can have a profound effect on the Rankings. That was seen in 2006 when future US PGA Championship winner Martin Kaymer finished in a tied for third and went on to end the year in fourth on the Rankings, while Ross Fisher and Andres Romero also had strong performances in the event before going on to become European Tour winners.
Welshman Stuart Davis finished second in the tournament in 2008 – a result which helped him claim 20th place in Rankings and the final automatic Tour card for the following season – and he returns looking to stage another late run after finishing sixth in Strasbourg.