Clément Sordet will bid to make the first successful defence of a European Challenge Tour title for 13 years as the 2016 Turkish Airlines Challenge champion returns to Gloria Golf Club this week.
The Frenchman nervelessly birdied the last hole to seal victory on the New Course 12 months ago and take a second win on the Road to Oman, following his triumph at the NI Open in 2015 in just his fourth event as a professional.
Daniel Vancsik was the last player to retain a Challenge Tour title when he won the Abierto Telefonica for the second year in succession in 2004 and in bidding to match him, Sordet is hoping to draw confidence from last year, as well as learning from his experience of defending his Northern Irish title last summer.
“I have really good memories,” said the 24 year old. “I obviously played pretty well last year and I cannot wait to get back out on the course and try to do the same again.
“I’m going to try to forget I won, just try to remember I played well but that I need to play my game. If you start thinking like you’re expecting to do it again, it’s not going to happen.
“I found it quite hard in Northern Ireland last year. Obviously I had won the year before, like this week, but I tried to do the same as I’m doing now and just focus on my game, try to remember the good shots I hit and take that confidence.
“I learned that you have to try to forget it. You’re the defending champion and everyone is going to expect that I’m going to win again or do well, but I have to try not to think about that and take it shot by shot, see in the end.”
Last year’s late drama saw Sordet extend a two-shot overnight lead to three shots with just two holes to play, before his compatriot Matthieu Pavon applied the pressure by eagling the closing hole – but Sordet remembers holding his nerve and sealing the victory with a birdie.
“I had a three-shot lead on the 17th tee,” he said. “I put it in the bunker, plugged, and made bogey, and Matthieu made eagle on the last at the same time.
“They had this big leaderboard on the 17th green and it goes ‘Sordet, 19 under’ and I watched the guy change the seven to a nine next to Pavon, and my three-shot lead had disappeared.
“The last hole is a par five and I hit two great shots, and I wanted to go for the eagle but my caddie told me to lag it up, which was smart! I wanted to give the big moment, the air punch and fist bump, but the win is the win, that was the most important thing.”
Ultimately 2016 ended disappointingly for Sordet as he was unable to harness the momentum of that early-season victory and he missed out on European Tour graduation by finishing just 25th in the Road to Oman Rankings.
Looking at the year ahead, he plans to learn from his experiences, especially if he gets his season off to a good start with another win.
“I finished the year pretty badly,” he said. “I didn’t make any top tens and it was disappointing after the start I had made to the season, with the win here.
“This year I need to start well again and also make sure I finish well, because of course the top 15 in the Road to Oman Rankings is the goal, and to make it to the European Tour for next year.
“I’m really comfortable on the Challenge Tour and last year was a good lesson for me because maybe I didn’t play enough. It was my first full season and I think I played 18 events out of 27 which I don’t think was enough.
“This year I will try to play a bit more. There’s no way to play them all, but I think I’ll only miss four or five this year instead of ten – but maybe it changes if I win again this week, then I can plan my schedule a bit more.”
A strong field has assembled in Belek, with Sordet joined by the two previous winners of the event, 2015 champion Rhys Davies and Oliver Farr, who triumphed the year before.
Aaron Rai, the leader of the Road to Oman following his victory in the season-opening Barclays Kenya Open, will tee it up after a solid showing at last week’s Trophée Hassan II on the European Tour, where he finished in a tie for 34th.
Six-time European Tour winner Alvaro Quiros is playing in his first Challenge Tour tournament since graduating through the Rankings in 2006, with other notable names including Michael Hoey, winner of five European Tour titles, and former Ryder Cup star Oliver Wilson.