Ahead of the start of a new European Challenge Tour season with next week’s Barclays Kenya Open, here are some of the names to watch out for on the 2017 Road to Oman.
With every new season comes a fresh batch of hopeful up-and-coming talent, eager to make their mark on Europe’s top developmental tour and dreaming of the top 15 on the Road to Oman and, with it, European Tour graduation.
Five players in Nairobi will be teeing it up on the Challenge Tour for the very first time, having never played a single tournament at this level before: Niklas Lindstrom of Sweden, Canadian Austin Connelly, England’s Charlie Bull, Ryan McCarthy of Australia and German Christian Braeunig.
Lindstrom finished sixth on the Nordic Golf League last year but has full status on the Challenge Tour as the beneficiary of Oscar Lengden making the cut at Final Stage of the European Tour Qualifying School, thus earning a higher category and moving his compatriot up to take his spot among the Satellite Tour graduates.
The 27 year old showed great form in 2016, winning once, coming second three times and securing another top five, but it will be interesting to see how he deals with the increased competition and quality on the Challenge Tour – on his sole European Tour outing to date, he missed the cut at last year’s Made in Denmark.
Connelly arrives in Europe with a strong reputation forged in the American amateur game, where the Texas-born 20 year old competed for Team USA in the 2014 Junior Ryder Cup before switching allegiance back to Canada.
He earned Challenge Tour status by making the cut at Q-School Final Stage in November and has since shone on the European Tour with a top ten finish in the ISPS HANDA World Super 6 Perth, but his appearance at Muthaiga Golf Club will mark his Challenge Tour debut.
Also on debut is Bull, who beat Connelly to the ATB Financial Classic title in August on Canada’s Mackenzie Tour.
The 25 year old then came through First and Second Stages of Q-School, missing the cut at Final Stage but still securing a Challenge Tour category for the coming season, and he will be keen to make his mark early when playing on an invite in Kenya.
Braeunig and McCarthy also earned Challenge Tour status by making the cut at Q-School, with both men impressively navigating First and Second Stage before solid weeks at PGA Catalunya Resort.
Among the other fresh faces embarking on their first full season on the Challenge Tour are Finland’s Oliver Lindell, another graduate from the Nordic Golf League and just 18 years old, Englishman Curtis Griffiths and Victor Perez of France.
Every season produces its own ‘hard luck’ stories, and last year that mantle was taken up by Jens Dantorp and Adrien Saddier in Oman.
Both of them made the latest of late charges, finding form on the last day of the season at the NBO Golf Classic Grand Final, with each of them making their first bogey of the day on the 18th hole when a par would have been good enough to finish in the top 16 of the Rankings and graduate to the European Tour.
They both know what European Tour life is like, having each earned their cards at Q-School in 2013, and they are both past winners on the Challenge Tour, with Sweden’s Dantorp victorious in the 2013 Rolex Trophy and Frenchman Saddier triumphant at last season’s Fred Olsen Challenge de España – expect these two seasoned campaigners to contend for more titles this year.
Another familiar face from 2016 who is back for more this season is Aaron Rai, whose consistency last year took him to 18th place on the Road to Oman.
The 22 year old finished in the top ten six times last season, contending to win on several occasions, and travels to Kenya on the back of a career-best result when he came tied seventh at the Joburg Open on the European Tour last month – the Englishman is sure to be one to watch this term.
Saddier is not the only tournament winner from 2016 who is back for more Challenge Tour action this season.
His compatriot Clément Sordet will look to defend his Turkish Airlines Challenge title, and add to a trophy cabinet that also already includes the NI Open from 2015.
Simon Forsström will return to the KPMG Trophy, scene of his breakthrough victory last year, while James Heath, Alvaro Velasco and Johan Edfors will be seeking to add to their 2016 triumphs.
Multiple winners on the Challenge Tour like Robert Dinwiddie, Daan Huizing, Moritz Lampert, Andrea Pavan, Ricardo Santos and Borja Virto will also feature this year in the full knowledge that they can close out tournaments when the heat comes on down the stretch on Sunday afternoon.
Points to prove
As well as the aforementioned Satellite Tour stars joining the Challenge Tour, there are always some disappointed players whose European Tour odysseys did not quite go as planned last year.
Chief among them this term is Craig Lee, the Scot who finished 112th in last year’s Race to Dubai – the highest-ranked player not to retain his European Tour card, and arguably therefore the unluckiest man in golf.
Michael Hoey, a five-time winner on the European Tour, will compete at his home course Galgorm Castle in the NI Open as part of the 2017 Challenge Tour schedule while Matthew Baldwin, Rhys Davies, and Morten Ørum Madsen are other familiar names back on the Road to Oman for 2017.