The European Challenge Tour arrives on French soil this week for the Najeti Open, the first of three tournaments in the country in 2016, with a clutch of local favourites on a run of form remarkable even by recent French standards on Europe’s top developmental tour.
Sébastien Gros won here 12 months ago, his six-shot victory around the testing Aa Saint-Omer Golf Club the springboard to him earning a top 15 spot in the Road to Oman Rankings and with it graduation to the European Tour, along with compatriot Thomas Linard.
Sébastien Gros won the Najeti Open last year and is now a European Tour player
They followed the likes of Benjamin Hebert, Mike Lorenzo-Vera and Gary Stal as recent French graduates from the Challenge Tour and, with Le Tricolore flying high in northern France, the start to the 2016 season suggests this could be another vintage year for emerging golfing talent in France.
First, Romain Langasque – then still an amateur – finished runner-up at the season-opening Barclays Kenya Open before the 20 year old headed to Augusta National for an impressive week at the Masters Tournament, where an excellent final round of 68 earned him a spot inside the top 40.
Langasque watches a tee shot in Kenya
Further top five finishes at the Red Sea Egyptian Challenge Presented by Hassan Allam Properties and the Turkish Airlines Open have put the youngster in fourth place on the Road to Oman after eight events.
The latter event then gave France its first winner of the season as Clément Sordet kept his cool on the 72nd hole to close out a second career Challenge Tour victory, helping him to his current position of 11th in the Rankings.
Two tournaments later and it was the turn of Damien Perrier to taste success at the D+D REAL Czech Challenge, the 26 year old climbing to eighth place in the Rankings as a result.
Perrier celebrates his victory in the Czech Republic
Completing a quintet of Frenchmen in the top 15 are Matthieu Pavon, perhaps the most consistent player on the Challenge Tour this year, and Joël Stalter.
Pavon, with two runner-up finishes already, lies in second place, while Stalter is yet to miss a cut this season, three top ten finishes earning him the final spot in the top 15.
That makes five prospective graduates all originating from our host country this week, with Adrien Saddier also only a few thousand points outside that mark in 21st place, suggesting that there is a lot going right for French golf at the moment.
Langasque plays a practice round at the Masters with compatriot Victor Dubuisson
Langasque – who won the Amateur Championship last summer – credits the work of the Fédération Française de Golf (FFG) both for easing his transition into the professional game and for the ongoing success of the latest crop of French players.
The big thing is the spirit among all of us - when one of us wins, it gives us the belief we can win too
“I think it’s all because of the Fédération,” he said. “They do a lot of good things for us. As an amateur I had the chance to play all around the world, and we now have some really good practice places in France.
“My feeling is that I want to be like Victor [Dubuission] and Alexander [Levy] – they are better than us, but I think we have a really good spirit where everybody wants to be better than everyone else.
“Look at me and Matthieu. He is second in the Rankings and I want to be above him, but we have a really good atmosphere, and all the French players know each other really well.
“Everything the Fédération did about ten years ago is now starting to work. When you get used to traveling as an amateur, when you play under pressure as an amateur, when you can play all around the world and on different grass as an amateur, then when you become a professional there’s not a big difference.
“It was the same for Victor and Alexander. The big thing is the work of the Fédération, what they do with us as the French team, and also just the spirit among all of us – when one of us wins a tournament, it gives us the belief we can win too.”
Sordet lines up a putt on his way to Turkish delight
The Fédération has done so much for us - the season is not over but we have made a really good start
Sordet too was quick to sing the praises of the FFG for the support they gave him during his time studying in America before he turned professional last summer, winning just his fourth event in paid ranks at the NI Open.
“The Fédération has done so much for us,” said the 23 year old. “Even when I was in the US, my coach and I had meetings during Thanksgiving and Christmas, we’d practise for the week and everything cost a lot of money but they just invested in that and I would say it’s paid off.
“I think we’re all pushing each other. We have so many guys playing so well this year. The season is not over but we have made a really good start – I think there’s a healthy rivalry too, maybe that plays a part.”
Pavon finished runner-up for the second week running at the Montecchia Open by Lyoness
I think we are all good friends - we're all helping everybody and this is the key
As for the form horse, 23 year old Pavon puts this year’s Gallic charge down to good old-fashioned French camaraderie.
“I think we are all good friends,” he said. “Every French guy likes the others so we are training a lot together, sharing rooms, sharing lunch and dinner – we’re all helping everybody and this is the key.
“It’s been an amazing year so far, how the French golf is going, and it’s increasing. We’re just trying to follow the leaders and keep doing well.“I was just targeting the top 45 at the end of the year, and now I think I may already have that certain, so now it’s just all a bonus. I’m just trying to play like I did at the start of the year and see what happens.”