Former champions Edoardo Molinari and Alvaro Velasco will serve as inspiration to the field at this week’s €400,000 Kazakhstan Open, which for the seventh successive season boasts the largest prize fund for a regular Challenge Tour event.
Molinari, in 2009, and last year’s champion Velasco both claimed the title, and with it the €64,000 first prize, en route to topping the final Challenge Tour Rankings – with record earnings of €242,979 in the case of the all-conquering Italian.
Both victories were secured at Zhailjau Golf Resort, in Almaty, but this year the event returns to the nearby Nurtau Golf Club, host venue from 2005-2008.
The last player to triumph at the stunning 7,319 yards, par 72 layout was England’s Gary Lockerbie, who held off the challenge of his compatriot Stuart Davis to prevail by two strokes in 2008.
Lockerbie graduated to The European Tour at the end of that campaign and kept his card the year after, but has returned to the Challenge Tour this season after finishing 163rd in The 2010 Race to Dubai.
By his own admission Lockerbie initially struggled for consistency this term, but after finding some form his confidence began to return – only for him to be struck down with gout, a form of arthritis which forced his withdrawal on the second day of the lucrative Madeira Islands Open.
Lockerbie said: “I was in such pain after the first day and the physios told me not to play the second round, but because it’s such a big week I thought I’d give it a go. I played nine holes but could hardly walk, so I had to withdraw and missed the next tournament as well. But luckily the medication the doctors gave me seemed to do the trick, and it’s been fine ever since.”
Having returned to full fitness Lockerbie has achieved some encouraging results in recent weeks, including at the Acaya Open, where two rounds of 67 over the weekend saw him surge through the field and finish in a tie for eighth place.
With confidence now fully restored, Lockerbie heads to Almaty in fine fettle, insisting he is striking the ball better than ever.
He said: “Technically, I’m probably better than ever. Now I’ve just got to take that form with me onto the course. Every part of my game is now better – from my driving, to my chipping and my putting. I’ve put in a lot of practice and hard work with my coach, and it’s really starting to pay off.”
The 28 year old is currently 69th in the Challenge Tour Rankings, so will in all probability need to repeat his victory of three years ago to ensure a swift return to The European Tour.
Lockerbie is relishing the challenge, however, saying: “I don’t mind the pressure. I’ve won out in Kazakhstan before, so there’s no reason why I can’t win again – especially the way I’m playing. The course is one of the best, if not the best we play on all season, so I’m really looking forward to getting out there. I’ve got a great record at Nurtau – I also finished tied third there in 2006 – so hopefully I can have another good week and start climbing the Rankings.
“The prize money on the Challenge Tour is quite top heavy, so the best way to climb the Rankings is to finish in the top three in the big tournaments, because that’s where you make your money. After Kazakhstan we’ve got Russia, which is another big tournament, so I’ve got an important couple of weeks coming up. After that, I’ll have a much better idea of where my season is heading.”
Another Englishman who has a special affinity with the Kazakhstan Open is Chris Gane, whose worst finish in six visits to the event was tied 36th on his debut in 2005.
Since then, Gane’s form figures read 25-15-5-2-29, and a repeat of his runner-up finish behind Molinari two years ago would ensure a return to The European Tour for the 37 year old from Kent, who currently occupies 16th place in the Challenge Tour Rankings.
Federico Colombo will also be relishing the prospect of returning to Kazakhstan, having finished in a tie for second place behind Velasco 12 months ago.
The in-form Italian, who currently sits in sixth place in the Rankings with earnings of €64,147, has enjoyed a tremendously consistent season with six top ten finishes, but a maiden Challenge Tour victory would set up the possibility of ending the campaign as the Number One graduate and so emulating the achievements of his friend and compatriot Molinari.
As well as the cream of the Challenge Tour, three of Korea’s brightest prospects will also tee up at Nurtau Golf Club, after Dong-kyu Jang, Kyung-nam Kang and Dae-hyun Kim were all offered a sponsor’s invitation.
Of the three players it is Kim has enjoyed the most success in his fledgling career, having won the Korean Tour Order of Merit last year thanks chiefly to his victory at the GS Caltex Maekyung Open.