Saturday, 30 December 2017
Five Players to Watch  (Getty Images)
Five Players to Watch (Getty Images)
As we look ahead to the prospect of another exciting golfing year in 2018 on the European Tour we take a look at who we think might make a big impression in this season’s Race to Dubai…

5. Alexander Björk - Age 27, Nationality - Swedish

Judging by the way Alexander Björk played in his rookie season on the European Tour in 2017, you would’ve thought the Swede has been competing at the top level for years. Such was the composure and consistency the 27 year old showed it became very easy to forget that he graduated from the Challenge Tour as recently as 2016. Björk, who finished tied third in overall scoring on the European Tour in 2017 at 112 under par, only missed six cuts all-season, while posting ten top 20 finishes in the process to qualify for the season-ending DP World Tour Championship, Dubai, where another top 20 finish duly followed.

All that added up to a 43rd place finish on the 2017 Race to Dubai for Alex, who had some impressive statistics to back up his good results, with the 27 year old ranking fifth in bogey avoidance on Tour, averaging just 2.42 per round, and eighth on Tour in Scrambling at 62.1%. He's got his 2018 season off to a fine start as well courtesy of a tied second finish at the first event of the campaign, the UBS Hong Kong Open, where Alex came within inches of making it into a playoff. 

Despite his first season achievements on the European Tour and fast start to the new season, Björk is determined not to rest on his laurels.

"I want to keep improving and getting more comfortable out here,” the Swede said. “I’d love to get in contention more and see how it feels on the back nine on a Sunday, but ultimately I want to improve on my Race to Dubai position. I was 43rd in 2017 and if I could get into the top 30 I know that gets you into some big events, like Majors and WGCs, so that’s my goal."

Björk came close to adding to the Le Vaudreuil Golf Challenge title he won on the Challenge Tour in 2016, with a Rolex Series victory at the HNA Open de France in July, before eventually finished in a tie for third place at Le Golf National – so he clearly feels comfortable being in the thick of it coming down the stretch at big European Tour events on Sundays. That feeling is one Alex wants to experience more this season.

"Performing like I did in France at the HNA Open de France was the highlight of my 2017 season,” he said.

“I played well all week, was tied for the lead at one point and I was able to hole a 20 foot putt on the final green to secure a top ten. It was a Rolex Series event and a really strong field as well, so to see my name in the top ten at the end of the week felt very good."

If Björk can continue his development during the 2018 season don’t be surprised if you see the man from Växjö holding aloft his first European Tour trophy this season.

4. Austin Connelly - Age 21, Nationality - Canadian

 

Despite only playing 17 European Tour events it would be fair to say Austin Connelly made a very big impression during the 2017 European Tour season. What the Canadian lacks in height, he more than makes up for in ability, as he demonstrated to the golfing world at The Open Championship back in July, where he got right into the mix on Saturday before posting a top 15 finish at Royal Birkdale. 

That performance certainly wasn’t the only highlight for the 21 year old, who also impressed in finishing second at the KLM Open, before capturing the eyes of the golfing world at the Italian Open where he teed it up alongside his childhood idol, Sergio Garcia, before re-creating a picture that his mother had taken years previously of the pair together when Austin was just two years old. 

“I feel completely at home on the European Tour and have been so well received by everyone out here – both the players and the officials too,” says Connelly.

“I feel great going into the 2018 season. I’ve been learning a lot with every experience that I have, so I have some good feelings about this year. My coach and I have pinpointed the parts of my game that need to improve and I feel like with a bit more work on those areas, I’m really going to see some good results in the 2018 season.”

Not afraid of going low or the spotlight that comes with it, the youngster, who counts three-time Major Champion Jordan Spieth as a close friend and big fan of his, seems to be particularly at home on challenging links golf courses, perhaps owning a lot to his accuracy from the tee, with Connelly ranking in the top 30 in the driving accuracy category on the European Tour last season.

Indeed, Connelly and Spieth both previously played in the Junior Ryder Cup, Connelly more recently in 2014, when the American side were utterly dominant at Blairgowrie.

Despite the praise coming his way the American-born Connelly is staying grounded.

“Having support from people and compliments is always nice,” he said. “Especially when it’s coming from guys like Jordan Spieth. It helps give me confidence, but it doesn’t matter so much what people say or what you’ve done in the past, because it’s still you against the course every week, and you still have a lot to learn.”

As well as being confident from the tee, Connelly is also handy with the short stick and ranked in the top 50 of that important category as well in 2017, averaging 29.1 putts per round. So keep an especially close eye on the name of Austin Connelly next year, especially when the links events role round…

3. Alfie Plant - Age 25, Nationality - English

 

Alfie Plant came to the golfing world’s attention when he won the Silver Medal as the leading amateur at the 2017 Open Championship, after rounds of 71, 73, 69 and 73 at Royal Birkdale. The 25 year old qualified for his first Major Championship after emulating Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods by winning the European Amateur with a birdie at the fifth extra hole at Walton Heath Golf Club. A lively character, Plant turned professional after the Walker Cup in September, but failed to gain his European Tour card at European Tour Qualifying School, so will be reliant on performing well in the events he’s given an invite to.

“Despite playing off invites I’m really looking forward to the new season,” he said. “It’s going to be tough but with a few good results I should be able to sneak my way through. I put quite a bit of expectation on myself, but hopefully I can overcome that and just play my game.”

If his Open Championship exploits are anything to go by, the Londoner will have every chance to win his card on limited starts. He certainly won’t be short of support with the Bexleyheath native often followed by the ‘Alfie Army’ – his large support group which is made up of family and friends. They’ll certainly be out in force if Plant finds himself playing alongside any of the big names this year – a prospect with excites him.

“I watch guys like Sergio every week on the TV and I want to be in their situation and would love to follow in their footsteps and achieve what they’ve achieved,” he said. “Just like those guys I’d love to win a Major one day – the list of what I want to achieve in the game is endless, but in the short term I want to make the cuts on the European Tour.”

If Plant can find the sort of form that saw him thrill the galleries at Royal Birkdale earlier this year, we might just see him making more headlines during the 2018 European Tour season.

2. Sam Horsfield - Age 21, Nationality - English


 

 

European Tour Qualifying School is said to be one of the most severe tests in sport – unless your name is Sam Horsfield that is. Just last month the Englishman blew away the field at European Tour Qualifying School in Spain, posting six straight rounds in the 60s to gain his playing rights on the European Tour for the 2018 season in the most emphatic fashion. What made that performance even more remarkable was the fact that Horsfield had already made it through stages one and two of Q-School – meaning that he had played a mammoth 252 holes overall. 

The 21 year old has had a colourful career to date, with the Mancunian enjoying a stellar career on the American collegiate system, before deciding to turn professional in May after two years at the University of Florida. Horsfield has already played in two Major Championships as well, after qualifying for the U.S. Open in both 2015 and 2016.

With his full playing rights now won, it will be fascinating to see how Horsfield, who started his 2018 season with a solid showing at the AfrAsia Bank Mauritius Open by posting three rounds in the 60s and finishing in a tie for 22nd, adapts to life on Tour. 

“All these experiences I’ve had getting onto the European Tour add up,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity one day to win on the European Tour or the PGA Tour and I can look back on days like I had on Sunday at Qualifying School, where I shot 63 in the final round while leading, and it can help me.

“You can’t teach how to deal with those experiences - you have to learn by putting yourself in these positions. So next time I’m leading a tournament I can hopefully use my good experiences at Q-School to my advantage.”

The Englishman already has some very good mentors to look up to, in the shape of compatriots Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood, who have both played active roles in the youngster’s development, with the former describing Horsfield as ‘the finest young golfer I have ever seen’ when he first saw him in action seven years ago. 

Perhaps this season we’ll get to see why some of the Tour’s most successful players rate him so highly… 

1. Tapio Pulkkanen - Age 27, Nationality - Finnish

 

Although Tapio Pulkkanen could be described as a late developer to the game, once he arrived, he really made his mark. The Challenge Tour was the place in question where he made waves by becoming the first Finn to finish a season as Challenge Tour Number One, largely thanks to a big win at the Kazakhstan Open in September. In addition to that victory, the 27 year old, who could give the likes of Nicolas Colsaerts and Ryan Fox a run for their money in the long driving stats this season, also recorded three runner-up finishes.

It’s been a fairy tale last few years for Pulkkanen, who topped the Rankings on the satellite Nordic Golf League in 2015, before going on to do the same on the Challenge Tour. And it hasn't taken Tapio long to adapt to life on the European Tour with the Helsinki native finishing in a tie for third place at the fourth event of the 2018 season, the Joburg Open, where he led into the weekend.

Although the golfing world around him has changed, the trilby hat which Pulkkanen says was inspired by the captain’s choice of headwear at his home club, has not. It’s not only his appearance that hasn’t changed with Tapio unsurprisingly keen to stick to a formula which has brought him a lot of success recently.

“Seeing guys like Julian Suri and Dylan Frittelli graduate and win trophies on the European Tour gives you confidence, but every player’s journey is different and I’ll stick to what has been working for me so well of late,” he said.

“My first goal is to try and keep my card this season, but I also want to win on the European Tour on either my first or second season, but we’ll see how that goes. I’m just really looking forward to getting started!”

So there you have it, our five players to watch out for during what promises to another exciting European Tour season.

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