Next week’s Open de Portugal at Morgado Golf Resort is significant for a number of reasons: a first Challenge Tour event in Portugal for two years, a large prize fund, plus the small matter of dual-ranking status with the European Tour.
This means that, as well as a large cheque, the winner will secure the potentially career-changing prize of a European Tour exemption until the end of the 2018 season – a far quicker route into the Race to Dubai for the Challenge Tour contingent than targeting a top 15 spot in the season-long Road to Oman Rankings.
The last dual-ranking tournament also took place on Portuguese soil, with Roope Kakko triumphant at the 2015 Madeira Islands Open – Portugal – BPI, the biggest victory of the Finn’s career.
The win came as a relief to the 35 year old who had lost his European Tour card at the end of 2014 and, by his own admission, had struggled to adjust to life back on the Challenge Tour.
“Sometimes when you get a taste of champagne, it’s hard to drink beer again,” he said. “When you play on the European Tour it can be hard to go back on the Challenge Tour.
“I was really struggling with my motivation, I didn’t feel like I’d played to the best of my abilities the year before so I had something to prove to myself. I played really well that week but it had been on my mind for several weeks and so when I managed to win it was such a special feeling.
When you get a taste of champagne, it's hard to drink beer again
“It was definitely one of the best weeks of my life, at least when it comes to golf. I played really well all week and I always enjoyed going to Madeira, I love the island and I always felt I had a good chance on that golf course, so it was a special week.
“Round Four was just one of those days when I felt like the score didn’t really matter, I just so wanted to win. I felt like the year before when I played on the European Tour I didn’t play to my abilities and I felt like I had to get back there as quickly as possible.
“I was really determined that week and luckily everything came together for me. It meant immediate promotion to the European Tour so it was a big thing.”
The champagne has unfortunately become beer again for Kakko as his 143rd spot in last year’s Race to Dubai was not quite enough to retain his European Tour playing rights for this season.
He has only played once this year – missing the cut at the Turkish Airlines Challenge – but he is the first to acknowledge it is his own shortcomings that have put him in this position, and he is prepared to do the work required to get his game back on track.
“I’ve had plenty of opportunities to play on the European Tour and I haven’t been good enough to stay there,” he said. “Of course I would like to be back, but the big picture is that I need to be better, so my biggest goal for this year is to become a better player.
“I had doubts through the winter but I feel like I’m in exactly the right place now, having given myself plenty of opportunities to play on the European Tour, and the results show that I haven’t been good enough to stay there.
“Right now it’s clear for me that I need to improve my game and get better and the Challenge Tour is as good a place to do that as anywhere, so I feel like next week, back on a big stage again, you never know what might happen.
“I’m trying to get my mindset to where the only thing that matters is winning a golf tournament. That’s where I want to take my mind, I don’t want to think about anything else, because it’s so hard to win a golf tournament if you’re not mentally ready to do that.”
Kakko, along with five-time European Tour winner Mikko Ilonen, has spearheaded the Finnish golfing charge since winning his home event, the Volvo Finnish Open, while still an amateur in 2004 – only the third amateur winner in Challenge Tour history.
The importance of Finland still hosting a tournament on the Road to Oman – the Vierumäki Finnish Challenge takes place in August – is not lost on Kakko, who would not have had his breakthrough opportunity 13 years ago had it not been for a national invite.
With a raft of Finnish talent starting to find their way to the top of Challenge Tour leaderboards – Tapio Pulkkanen was second in Turkey, while Kalle Samooja, Jaako Makitalo and Oliver Lindell have already caught the eye this year – Kakko is hopeful that a new star can emerge from among his up-and-coming compatriots.
“I think Finnish golf is in a good place,” he said. “There are a number of good guys, especially the youngster Lindell, he’s a super talent.
“It’s the same thing with Tapio. We’ve all known how talented Tapio is for a long time, he just hasn’t been able to put it all together, but I have played several practice rounds with him now and he seems finally to be playing to his strengths.
“He’s putting the ball in play, his short game is sharper than it’s ever been, so it’s great to see him do as well as we all knew he should be doing.
“I think the situation is pretty good in Finland and there’s a couple of really good amateurs coming through as well, so for some reason it’s all coming together – we’ve always been a little bit behind Sweden in everything so maybe it’s the same thing in golf, but we’re now catching up.
“The Vierumäki Finnish Challenge is a big thing for Finnish golf and especially the young guys. The super talented amateurs who are about to turn pro, it makes things easier for them because of the invites they can then get – you can probably play seven times during the year.
“If you’re good enough you should then be able to do well enough to earn a category for next year, so it definitely makes it easier – it’s a tough ask otherwise, if you play Nordic Golf League or Alps Tour, to finish top five, so this gives you an extra opportunity to take one step forwards.“The way I got onto the Challenge Tour was by winning a Challenge Tour event as an amateur, in Finland where I was on a national invite. Without that tournament I don’t know where my career would be right now, so it’s definitely useful for Finnish golf to have a Challenge Tour event.”