Three years ago, Raphäel de Sousa was being hailed as the great hope for the future of Swiss golf, having seemed almost certain to make the step up to The European Tour.
The Geneva resident started the 2008 Challenge Tour campaign like the proverbial train, securing a pair of runner-up finishes at the Piemonte Open and the Oceânico Group Pro-Am Challenge to climb temporarily to the top of the Challenge Tour Rankings.
A pair of top six finishes swiftly followed, at the Telenet Trophy and the Allianz Open de Lyon, to maintain de Sousa’s momentum, only for his challenge to falter with a missed cut at the money-spinning Kazakhstan Open, where a top 20 finish would have all but guaranteed a debut campaign on The European Tour.
But de Sousa still entered the season-ending Apulia San Domenico Grand Final in the top 20 of the Rankings, and with his destiny firmly in his own hands.
Opening rounds of 69 and 70 had seemed to dispel any lingering nerves, but when de Sousa failed to break par on the weekend the writing was on the wall, and he finished the season in the unenviable position of 23rd in the final Rankings – less than €4,000 behind England’s Stuart Davis in 20th place.
De Sousa cut a lone figure that night, and by his own admission he took a long time to recover from the disappointment, missing the cut by a mile at the 2008 Qualifying School Final Stage and making the weekend in just two events during a wretched campaign in 2009 which yielded less than €2,000 in earnings.
Having lost all playing privileges on the Challenge Tour, de Sousa decided to cheer himself by hitting the slopes, only for injury to be added to insult when he broke his shoulder during a skiing accident.
But having returned to full fitness and rediscovered some of his old form with a tied fifth finish at the Mugello Tuscany Open in mid-May, de Sousa is confident that his darkest days are now behind him.
He said: “I had a really rough time in 2009 – I played really poorly, and my confidence just went completely. Then at the end of the year I broke my shoulder, so that took a long time to recover from. Last year was a transition year – I didn’t have any expectations, it was just a case of trying to feel my way back into tournament golf and get my confidence up little by little. Winning the Second Stage of the Qualifying School was great, and although I missed the cut at the Final, it still gave me some momentum which I was able to carry into the start of the season.
“I’ve been playing much better this year, and the result in Italy gave me a lot of confidence. I’m still quite a long way down the Rankings so I could do with a big week here, and with the tournament being played in Switzerland it gives me even more motivation to play well. I played well in the Pro-Am and my game feels like it’s coming together, so hopefully I can go out there and do great things. Mentally I feel much better, and if I can get off to a good start in the first round, I’m pretty confident of having a good week.”
If de Sousa is to make good on his promise his driver and long irons will have to be on song, with the Woodside Course at Golf Sempachersee near Lucerne, Switzerland, measuring in at 7,261 yards (or 6,640 metres), making it the longest in the country.
De Sousa said: “It’s a very long course anyway, and with the rain we’ve had it’s going to be playing even longer. The rough is also up compared to last year, so last week in Italy was a good warm-up for what we can expect here this week. There are still some birdie chances out there but you have to play well to take them, especially because some of the greens aren’t that easy to read. The winning score last year was 22 under, but nobody’s going to get anywhere close to that this time – I should think between 12 and 15 under par will win this week, depending on the conditions.”
The 28 year old will lead a strong home challenge which includes European Tour champion André Bossert, former European Tour Member Julien Clément and four members of the Swiss side which ran France a close second at last week’s European Amateur Team Championship: Victor Doka, Artur Gabella, Marco Iten and Switzerland’s leading amateur, Benjamin Rusch.
Having a Challenge Tour event is crucial to the development of that quartet and other up-and-coming amateurs, according to de Sousa.
He said: “It’s very important for Swiss players to have a Challenge Tour event in Switzerland, because it means we can exchange invitations with other Federations, which helps give up and coming young players the chance to play in Challenge Tour events in other countries. Credit Suisse have been big supporters of golf in Switzerland for a long time now, so it’s great to have them behind us, and in return we as players want to repay the faith they’ve shown in us.”