The European Challenge Tour reaches its annual, nerve-shredding climax at the Apulia San Domenico Grand Final this week, a golf tournament that regularly taps into the complete spectrum of human emotions – from unbridled ecstasy, to overwhelming relief, to absolute dream-shattering agony.
Europeantour.com caught up with four players who have shared a mixture all of the above emotions ahead of one of the most exciting, nerve-wracking tournaments in golf.
The Grand Final sees the culmination of a full year’s hard labour come down to four rounds of golf, after which the top 20 players on the Rankings will be handed a potential golden ticket to golfing stardom and riches beyond their wildest dreams.......
Michael Lorenzo-Vera will not feature at this year’s Apulia San Domenico Grand Final but three years ago the young Frenchman from Biarritz produced one of the performances of the year at San Domenico Golf to win the Grand Final and pip Ross McGowan to the Number One spot in the end of season Rankings. Lorenzo-Vera needed to get up and down from a greenside bunker on the 72nd hole to win the tournament and the Rankings.
“I can still feel my heart beating the way it did that day when I think about it,” recalls Lorenzo-Vera. “I remember had a great first round that week. I went into the week seventh in the Rankings having not won a tournament. I hadn’t really thought about winning the Rankings because I needed a lot of the variables to happen to win the Order of Merit. For example Ross (McGowan) needed to be outside the top 30 at the Grand Final for me to get past him. I had to be lucky and good. Well, Ross finished 34th and then I was told that if Jamie Donaldson had made his birdie putt in the last round then he would have been the Number One but he missed the putt and I had a chance to win the Rankings if I won the tournament.
“It was just one of those great weeks for me. Sometimes it all goes your way. I shot 63 in the first round and played great and I managed to win the tournament. I hit some great shots on the last few hole in the last round and then I needed to make the up and down from the bunker on the 18th. Looking back on it, it was, technically, a pretty easy up and down. I had a nice uphill lie but when you add the pressure that I felt then I am surprised that I got the ball out of the bunker. I remember standing over the ball and feeling that my arms were really weak. Then my heart started beating so hard. It was booming. But I managed to go through it and through the routine and play the shot. The Grand Final is a great week but very nervous and with a lot of pressure. Everyone can win a card, even the player in 45th place, so everyone has a lot to play for. There is a lot of tension but that’s because the stakes are so high. It was a great feeling to win in those circumstances.”
Stuart Davis was the man who held on for the last available card in 2008 but had to go through the agony of hoping a fellow professional would miss a five foot putt in order to keep him in the all-important top 20. He needs a big result at San Domenico this week to get back into the top 20 from his current position of 34th in the Rankings.
“I went into the week in 19th spot in 2008,” said Davis. “I played with John Morgan that week and he shot 61 on the third day to get right up on the leaderboard and I knew that he was going to overtake me on the Rankings. But then I couldn’t see anyone else on the leaderboard who could go past me as long as I didn’t have a nightmare in the final round. I played pretty well on the last day and made a 30 foot birdie putt on the 17th and then parred the last. It was looking good and then Marco Ruiz birdied the 16th and then someone else dropped a shot and all of a sudden Marco was going to knock me out if he birdied 17 or 18 which were both downwind and good chances. He didn’t birdie the 17th so then I am watching him coming down the last and he hits it into to five feet for birdie.
“There was nothing I could do if Marco holed this putt. I was watching it through my fingers, it was horrible. He missed the putt. That meant that I had my card by €250. It was unbelievable. The tension was horrible and you also feel terrible for a fellow pro just missing out but it happens to someone every year. It has happened to me enough times on the others side and I was relieved to have done it. It is a horrendous experience sometimes but the reward is worth going through it.”
Peter Gustafsson has twice missed his European Tour card by a single place on the Challenge Tour Rankings, finishing the year in 16th place in 2004, and then 21st at San Domenico Golf 12 months ago. The Swede is back in Italy this week Ranked 35th going into Wednesday’s first round hoping that this year is his turn to knock someone out of the top 20.
“The Grand Final hasn’t been too good to me, but the worst one was 2004 in Golf du Medoc,” Gustaffsson remembers. “I finished my round and the Tour told me that I had to stay until the end if the tournament but I had to leave to make my flight home. The week had worked out that if Mattias Eliasson, who was leading by two shots with two holes to play in the final round at the Grand Final, won the tournament then I was in the top 15. If he lost to David Drysdale, who was the clubhouse leader as I left for the airport, then Drysdale went past me and knocked me out of the top 15. Eliasson went bogey-bogey and then lost the play-off to Drysdale.
“I couldn’t afford to miss my flight so I had to leave the course before I knew any of this. I was driving to the airport not knowing what was happening when I got a phone call from a friend saying that the Swedish commentators had announced that Eliasson had won the Grand Final during their European Tour broadcast. That meant I was in but after a while I got suspicious because no-one was calling me and no text messages were coming in. It was a bit too quiet and then another friend called me and said he was sorry and that I had missed it by one place. It wasn’t the best phone call I had ever had.
“Then I finally got to Bilbao airport and they cancelled my flight. That kind of summed up the day as you can imagine – it wasn’t one of my best. I finished 21st in the Rankings to miss by card by one place again last year. I was 19th going into the week and finished 11th at the Grand Final and still two people went past me. Again, not one of my happiest memories. You have to try and work your mind around the Grand Final but it is difficult because you are playing for the chance to join the Tour where you will play for about 15 times the money you can make on the Challenge Tour. It means a lot but you have to treat it like any other week – whatever happens, happens. I believe everything happens for a reason and that I am stronger from all of these experiences. Hopefully I can knock someone out of the top 20 this week. It is what it is.”
Lee Slattery exploded onto the Challenge Tour in 2004, joining the tour halfway through the season but winning the Rankings following an amazing run of form that saw him win at the Telia Grand Prix, as well as register a further six top five finishes in the space of three months to accumulate €95,979 and be crowned Challenge Tour Number One. Slattery is back at the Grand Final looking to improve his Ranking of 14th and rejoin The European Tour.
“My Grand Final experience was a pretty happy one in 2004,” said Slattery. “I was pretty much going head to head with Alessandro Tadini going into the last event of the year. I was about €2000 behind Alessandro on the Rankings but I have to be honest and say that I was probably the most relaxed man at that event because I was such a late starter to that season that I had no expectations and didn’t really feel any pressure. It basically came down to the last day and we were on the same score but he was a couple of groups ahead of me. I got off to a great start and was about four under and Alessandro had gone the other way to about four over so I just really had to get in safely from that point and managed to do it. But as I said I was under no pressure that week.
“I only played 11 events that season, I just came from nowhere and that made the difference from me because there was nothing on the line for me. I just went there full of confidence and ended up finishing third in the tournament and winning the Rankings. It’s a different story for me this week. I’ll be one of the guys looking over my shoulder this time and there will be a lot more tension for me because I need to play well to make sure I get back on the Tour. I have managed to have a couple of decent years on tour since I won the Rankings and when you know you can do that you just want to be back out there playing in the big events. The pressure will be on me this week but it is a great tournament with great memories for me.”