After 24 tournaments played across four Continents over nine months in 18 different countries, the 2010 Challenge Tour season reaches its climax at this week’s Apulia San Domenico Grand Final in southern Italy.
The top 45 players on the Challenge Tour Rankings will head to the stunning San Domenico Golf in Puglia, with the same aim: to claim one of the 20 cards available for The 2011 European Tour International Schedule.
Some players, such as Rankings leader Alvaro Velasco of Spain, have already guaranteed their places in next season’s Race to Dubai, but for many more the week will be a test of nerve as well as technique.
With €51,500 on offer to the winner of the €300,000 tournament, anyone from Scotland’s Raymond Russell to England’s Adam Gee, respectively 21st and 45th in the Rankings, can still join the Spaniard on The European Tour.
Similarly, should Velasco’s performance levels drop below the stellar standards he has set this season, any player down to ninth placed Julio Zapata of Argentina could conceivably overtake him and claim the coveted Number One spot.
Velasco, currently top of the tree with winnings of €130,863 thanks largely to his victories at the Fred Olsen Challenge de España and the Kazakhstan Open, said: “I made some adjustments to my game after the first round last week, and for the next three days they worked really well. Hopefully I can keep it up for the Grand Final, and have a great finish to a fantastic season. I’m here this week to have a good time, and to try to perform as well as possible. I’ve had a really good year so far, and once you’re up near the top of the leaderboard, you start having higher expectations.
“Life on the Challenge Tour has taught me to adapt to many different courses and conditions. It’s very important for a player to be adaptable now. That’s the best thing about the Challenge Tour – it’s like a university for golf and life! I now have a very clear goal: I want to win the Challenge Tour Rankings this week. I’m in a good position to achieve it, but it’s not over yet. I know I have to play very well, as there are a lot of good players here, and they are not going to make it easy for me.
“At the start of the season, winning the Challenge Tour wasn’t really in my thoughts – I just wanted to finish in the top ten. But as the season went on, I knew I was playing well and so I started thinking about it more, especially after I went top of the Rankings with my win in Kazakhstan. It would be a very happy end to a wonderful season. Then next year I want to make it into the top 50 in the world. It’s a faraway goal, but I’m on my way. I will never stop finding new challenges.”
Velasco is thus bidding to follow in the spikemarks of Italian Edoardo Molinari, who since winning the Rankings with record earnings in 2009 has triumphed in tandem with younger brother Francesco at the Omega Mission Hills World Cup, captured two titles on The European Tour to climb to seventh in The Race to Dubai, and played a pivotal part in Europe’s regaining of The Ryder Cup.
Molinari has been joined in The European Tour winners’ enclosure this season by three of his fellow Challenge Tour graduates, namely Rhys Davies of Wales and the English duo of James Morrison and John Parry; whilst the winner of last year’s Apulia San Domenico Grand Final, Scotland’s Peter Whiteford, is one of nine graduates currently inside the top 115 of The Race to Dubai, and therefore on course to keep their cards.
Thus the importance of the Apulia San Domenico Grand Final, and indeed the Challenge Tour as a whole, cannot be underestimated – a point not lost on Russell, who went into last week’s Egyptian Open 2010 presented by SODIC in 20th place in the Rankings, but was subsequently overtaken by Lee Slattery after the Englishman finished fourth in Cairo.
He said: “Obviously it’s not ideal to be knocked out of the top 20, but I suppose it was better happening last week than if it was to happen at the Grand Final. Everyone would rather be a few places better off than they are, so I just have to treat it like any other week and try to focus on playing well. The season isn’t decided on one week. I know that the focus at this time of the year becomes far more intense, but the guys who have played the best throughout the season are up there for that very reason.
“There are four big events on the Challenge Tour in terms of money – St Omer, Kazakhstan, the Scottish Challenge and the Grand Final – and we have one big week left to get ready for. Do you think the likes of Lee Westwood accidently peak for the four Majors every year? Of course he doesn’t – he prepares himself for the biggest weeks on the Tour, and that is what you have to do at every level. The guys who have done well in the big Challenge Tour events have prepared properly for the biggest tournaments of the year, and therefore deserve to do well out of them.
“I haven’t played the course at San Domenico but I hear it is very windy and quite linksy, so I have been practicing with a one iron for the past month to get ready for it, and will have that in the bag with me this week. I don’t know if that will be a factor, but I am trying to prepare the best I can to try to get my card back.”
For the sixth year running the drama will unfold at the picturesque San Domenico Golf, which is part of the European Golf Design group. Situated on the south east coast of Italy near the town of Fasano, the course lends itself to some spectacular views of the Mediterranean Sea.
The originally flat and featureless agricultural land has been shaped to create definition, resulting in a links-style layout. The course, which at 6,677 yards in length places an emphasis on strategy over brute force, is ring-fenced by traditional stone walling, with olive trees lining a number of the fairways.
For the first time kitchen appliance brand Scholtès will sponsor the Apulia San Domenico Grand Final, which has been nominated as the European Challenge Tour’s Flagship Event, meaning that this year’s champion will receive a minimum of 16 Official World Golf Ranking points for the first time in Challenge Tour history.