Tapio Pulkkanen arrived at Royal Waterloo for this week’s KPMG Trophy unaware that he is the highest-ranked player on the Road to Oman teeing it up in Belgium.
“I didn’t know that, but that’s exciting,” said the Finn, whose two runner-up finishes this season have helped take him to fourth spot in the Rankings. “It’s a little bit different from the last couple of years so it’s nice to be up there, but of course every week is different.”
Pulkkanen has long been spoken about as a great prospect, not least after dominating the Nordic Golf League in 2015, but has struggled to transfer that potential and form into Challenge Tour consistency until this season.
The 26 year old was narrowly edged out in a thrilling weekend head-to-head with Ryan Evans at the Turkish Airlines Challenge in April before backing it up with a sixth place finish in the Open de Portugal at Morgado Golf Resort the following week.
On his last outing, he again found himself in the final pairing for the final 36 holes at the D+D REAL Czech Challenge, eliminating Julian Suri’s three-shot final round lead by the turn before the American just did enough to pull away down the stretch.
Despite another near miss, Pulkkanen is determined to take the positives from his fine form so far this year as he bids to consolidate his place in the top 15 – all of whom earn European Tour cards at the end of the season.
“I’m feeling positive,” he said. “I think in the Czech Republic, Julian won it in the end, rather than me losing it, so that was how I tried to see it afterwards – he played really well on the back nine on the last day, made four birdies in a row.
“I played solid but of course there’s always something you think you could have done differently, that’s life. But I made it interesting and it was close – halfway round we were tied, so I did well, but he definitely went and won it, I didn’t lose it.
“I’m just trying to do my best every time I play and just see how it ends up, and I never expected to have this good a start to the season, I could never have thought I would play as well as this after a bad year on the Challenge Tour last year.
“I spent the winter working hard and my game was feeling good, so it’s really pleasing to have got some good results so early in the season.
“I’m not thinking about my technique as much as before. I’m just playing the game, that’s the main thing that has changed – I also put an extra wedge in the bag instead of my three iron and that has also helped me get the yardage better with the short irons.
“The feeling of playing is more there and more natural now. I am not trying to reproduce some technique, but am just going out there feeling like I can just play.
“My confidence has grown too, I feel like I can play good golf on any given day, so I feel very comfortable right now any time I go out on course.”
A natural big hitter, Pulkkanen has curbed his enthusiasm this season, content to bide his time and wait for his opportunities – though he concedes he may need to rethink that approach the next time he finds himself in contention on a Sunday.
“I think it helps that I’ve been in the final group now twice,” he said. “I know what you need to do – I won five times on the Nordic Golf League and it was a bit different because I knew that when I played my own game on the last day, that was enough.
“Here on the Challenge Tour, it feels like if I play my own game, guys might not drop out so maybe that’s what I need to do now, to do some magic stuff out there and go and win it on the final day – I’m going to try to find some magic from now on.
“I haven’t played that aggressively this season. I’ve played more conservative golf than some others but I still get a lot of birdie opportunities and I think that’s the key.
“You have to stay patient and make the putts when you get those chances, that’s all I’ve tried to do. Avoiding mistakes is important – before I used to have some really big numbers coming up from bad tee shots so that’s been a bit different too.
“I used to always try to use the wind so that the ball would go as far as possible, whichever way it was blowing from – my goal from the tee was just to hit it as long as I could whereas now I’m a bit older so I’m trying to keep the ball in play more. I’ve realised the longest drive is not as good as the straightest drive.”
Pulkkanen played at Royal Waterloo when the Challenge Tour last had a tournament here four years ago and though he missed the cut, he remembers the course fondly and expects it to offer a good test for the players this week.
“I played here four years ago and I like the course,” he said. “I think there’s maybe a little less rough than last time, and if it’s windy it will be very tricky, but it’s a good course.
“You can drive it a lot but then there are some quite small greens and some nasty shots coming up, but I like that, it’s a good challenge for us all.”
Pulkkanen is joined in Belgium by Joel Girrbach, buoyed by a maiden Challenge Tour victory in his home event at last week’s Swiss Challenge presented by ASG.
The 13 Belgians in the field are headed by Christopher Mivis following his career-best result of tied fifth in the D+D REAL Czech Challenge two weeks ago – the 28 year old is currently 30th on the Road to Oman.
Hoping to fire on his professional debut in Waterloo is Gunn Yang, the Korean who won the 2014 U.S. Amateur Championship and has since focussed on completing his studies at San Diego State University and has now chosen the Challenge Tour as the best path to reach the game’s top tiers.