Gaganjeet Bhullar, the first Indian to win a Challenge Tour event in its 23-year history, is hoping for some “history repeating” this week as he returns to defend his Gujarat Kensville Challenge title against an even more impressive field at Kensville Golf and Country Club, near Ahmedabad, India.
The man from the Northern Indian city of Kapurthala produced a shock home victory last year, pipping England’s Matt Ford to the prize by a single shot over the demanding 7,224 yards, par 72 course, which was co-designed by European Tour champion Jeev Milkha Singh.
With an improved field this year, which includes one of India’s greatest golfers Shiv Kapur as well as young American Peter Uihlein, who makes his professional debut after a glittering amateur career, Bhullar accepts that successfully defending his title will be no easy task, but he is relishing the opportunity.
“Last year was amazing,” he reflected. “It was my first ever appearance on the Challenge Tour, and winning was lovely. I really remember all four rounds, I enjoyed it and hopefully it will be a case of history repeating this year.
“This is my second tournament at Kensville and, trust me, this course has improved a lot. Last year there were a few dry patches, but this year the greens are true and fast.
“I'm really looking forward to playing this event. It looks like the Challenge Tour is improving, definitely, so it’s a privilege to host the event in India and it would be nice to see a lot of Indian players doing well this week.”
The 23 year old’s victory at Kensville G&CC last year proved a sign of things to come, as he went on to win three more tournaments on the Professional Golf Tour of India (PGTI) before securing his best finish on The European Tour at the Czech Open, where he came ninth after receiving an invitation.
There is a lot expected of the young Indian and he intends to turn his focus to Europe this year, taking up an affiliate membership which will once again allow him to play on The European Tour and Challenge Tour through invitations.
“I started really well last year,” he continued. “I won four out of five weeks, and after winning this event it got me a few invites and a few playing opportunities on The European Tour. I played well in a few of them but it is all part of the learning stage of my career, and the more I’m going to play on European soil the better I’m going to become. The experience of playing with European players is definitely going to improve the level of golf in India.
“I’m going to be an associate member this year, so if I get the opportunity I’ll play as much as I can on the Challenge Tour, because it’s a very good way of getting your card on The European Tour and every Asian and European wants to be on that Tour. It would be a great pleasure to go on and qualify for The European Tour.
“I’m expecting a few invites and golf is a funny game, a few good weeks and it can save your card, it can turn around.”
In terms of expectations as the defending champion this week, Bhullar has experience beyond his years and has been in a similar situation many times before.
“I don’t feel too much pressure,” he said. “It’s not the first time I’ve defended a title in India because I’ve won about 10 or 12 events here – and a lot of big ones. When I see all my friends on the driving range and on the course it feels like a really friendly atmosphere.“Of course, when you defend a title you have a lot of hopes and expectations and you do become a bit tentative, but I guess that’s the difference between a good player and a really good up-and-coming player.”
There will be no shortage of either in Ahmedabad this week, with no fewer than six European Tour winners in the field as well as 19 Challenge Tour champions.
Daniel Vancsik, with two European Tour titles and three Challenge Tour wins, is the most decorated player present but the likes of John Parry and Oscar Henningson, both winners on The European Tour, will enter the new season harbouring hopes of a return to the big stage via the Challenge Tour Rankings.
Meanwhile, one player with similar ambitions but with a lot less experience is Uihlein, the 22 year old who has caused quite a stir on both sides of the Atlantic as an amateur, impressing in the first round of the 2011 Masters Tournament before making the cut at The Open Championship later in the year.
There is no shortage of experience this week either, with European Tour regular Kapur playing the Gujarat Kensville Challenge for the first time and hoping to kick-start his year with a win after a disappointing year last year which saw him finish 121st in The Race to Dubai.Milkha Singh’s creation provided the toughest test on the Challenge Tour last year, with just six players finishing the inaugural event under par.