Two-time European Tour champion Marc Warren of Scotland will make his first Challenge Tour appearance since winning the Rankings in 2005 at this week’s Barclays Kenya Open, an event which also marks Englishman Benn Barham’s return to competitive action following life-saving surgery.
Warren took the Challenge Tour by storm six years ago, winning the Ireland Ryder Cup Challenge and the Rolex Trophy and adding a further three top five finishes to top the Rankings with earnings of €103,577.
Instant success followed on The European Tour in 2006, when he won the Scandinavian Masters before adding the 2007 Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles and, in partnership with Colin Montgomerie, the Omega Mission Hills World Cup to his bulging trophy cabinet.
But since then the Glasgow resident, who celebrates his 30th birthday this Friday, has found life rather tougher on The European Tour, culminating in him losing his card last year after finishing 124th in The Race to Dubai.
Warren will now attempt to rebuild his career on the Challenge Tour which, following visits to India and Colombia at the start of the season, visits its third different Continent this week before the European season starts in earnest with the Allianz Challenge de France at the start of May.
Barham missed those first two events as he continued his recovery from surgery after a tumour had been detected on his right kidney, but the 35 year old is relishing his return to Muthaiga Golf Club in Nairobi, Kenya, a course where he has enjoyed great success in the past, having finished in a tie for tenth place last year and fourth in 2002.
He said: “I’m obviously going to be a bit nervous on the first tee in Kenya, because it’s almost like I’m starting out again. But I know the course well and it’s a tournament I’ve enjoyed playing in the past, so it’s a great week to be making my comeback. Obviously I’ll have to manage my expectations, but I’m determined to enjoy it because I feel like I’ve been given a second chance, at life and also at my career.”
The €190,000 event, which is celebrating its 43rd edition but its first with Barclays as title sponsors, traditionally attracts a strong field, and this week’s tournament is no different.
Following his victory at the Abierto Internacional Cope Antioquia, current Rankings leader Joaquin Estevez of Argentina is bidding to become the first player to win back-to-back Challenge Tour titles since former Barclays Kenya Open champion Iain Pyman of England achieved the feat in 2007.
With both climate and course conditions similar to those found in South America, Argentinians have enjoyed considerable success since the event joined the Challenge Tour Schedule in 1990, with Jorge Berendt (1997), Ricardo Gonzalez (1998) and Daniel Vancsik (2005) all adding their names to a roll call of past champions which includes three Major winners: Spain’s Seve Ballesteros (1978), Wales’ Ian Woosnam (1986) and South African Trevor Immelman (2000).
Vancsik, a winner of two European Tour and three Challenge Tour titles, is thus hoping history can repeat itself, as the last time he won the event he ended the season in ninth place in the Rankings.
Other players plotting their return to the top tier are young Englishman Sam Hutsby, who is bidding to recapture some of the form which saw him hailed as a star in the making after finishing second behind his compatriot Simon Khan at the 2009 Qualifying School Final Stage.
His friend and fellow stablemate Tommy Fleetwood will also be looking to build on the brilliant potential he showed last season, when he recorded two runner-up finishes – including one as an amateur – in just six Challenge Tour appearances.
Of the home contingent, Ali Kimani is again expected to pose the biggest threat, having led at the midway stage 12 months ago courtesy of a stunning round of 65 on the second day, before fading over the weekend to finish in a tie for 24th place.
Kimani, who coaches Kenya’s national team, returns to the magnificent Muthaiga Golf Club, on the outskirts of the capital city of Nairobi, bidding to create history by becoming the first home player to win the event.