The unprecedented success of Finnish golf has been clear for all to see of late, from Mikko Ilonen’s rise to the top 50 in the Official Golf World Ranking to a record 11 players making the cut at this week’s Finnish Challenge, and the country's Golf Union’s General Secretary thinks things will only get better.
Ilonen is now providing inspiration for the young up and coming stars of Finnish golf but without support and a structure for development, it becomes much more difficult for those young players to fulfil their dreams of playing on The European Tour.
Petri Peltoniemi, the General Secretary of the FGU, thinks the Challenge Tour provides a crucial link between their amateur structure and the highest echelon of European golf.
“It is a great opportunity for our amateurs to play here and see that it is possible to be successful in the professional game,” he said. “But I would not say that that is the main thing for us. It is for us to be able to help our emerging professionals that don’t have a category.
“Like Tapio Pulkkanen, a prime example this year, or Janne Mommo. We helped Janne last year so that this year he has a full category on the Challenge Tour.
“Why do we want to help these guys? We go back to the Olympics. We want to have enough players playing at a high enough level so that their world ranking is high enough and we can have a full field playing in Rio – two men and two women.
“We also want it to be competitive for players trying to get those two picks each and 100% success for us would be to have two men and two women playing in the 2016 Olympics.”
Peltoniemi is delighted to see the continuing success of Ilonen, who played on the Challenge Tour in 2006 before going on to win two titles the following season on The European Tour, on the world stage and thinks that the growing stature of Finnish golf can only increase thanks to his success.
“Mikko is the all-time best player we have had,” he said. “He has been the pioneer for us, walking paths that nobody else from Finland has ever done and showing what you need to do to make it in world golf.
“Other players now know that it’s possible and they can ask Mikki or his coach, ‘what do I need to do?’ When I was a coach for juniors in the 1990’s, it was difficult for me to say how much you need to work or what you need to do to bridge that gap to the big time.
“Now we have examples and idols. Obviously it motivates players and I think promoting Challenge Tour events is also part of that process. The Challenge Tour is what we need to bring publicity too, and show people that we have former Ryder Cup players like Jarmo Sandelin and Oliver Wilson playing in Finland, and we also have the future Ryder Cup players.
“In 2009 Edoardo Molinari was playing the Challenge Tour and not many people noticed but the year after, everybody noticed.”
And what about the prospect of a first Finnish Ryder Cup player?
“If the Ryder Cup was played this year, Mikko would be pretty close so if he has a similar season next year he could be playing in it at Gleneagles,” he said.
“Obviously whatever Mikki achieves, he deserves all the credit himself and we would never try to take any of that. But he had a lot of support as an amateur from the golf union and that helps.
“Tapio is one of the young players we are looking at now to go on to success, but we have a lot more players and our number one amateur Toni Hakkula is not even here this week because he’s playing in the USA at the Western Amateur. Next week he will be playing the US Amateur
“All in all, elite golf has been really good in Finland recently, in men’s and women’s, and for a small country we are very happy with the depth we have at the moment.”