This week’s Doubletree by Hilton Acaya Open is the 13th of the 26 tournaments on the 2012 Challenge Tour schedule, and if the second half is anywhere near as exciting as the first, we are in for a treat.
Eleven countries in four continents have been visited and €2,787,191 in prize money has been contested, while we have seen 11 different winners from eight different countries so far.
Of those, seven are first-time Challenge Tour winners, and the current top five in the Challenge Tour Rankings is a blend of youth and experience, with Englishman Gary Lockerbie leading by a mere €125 from Swede Magnus A Carlsson, and Simon Wakefield of England, Dane Andreas Hartø and young Frenchman Gary Stal, a two-time winner this season, hot on their heels.
Remarkably, none of the top four have won this year, but all were placed in the top three in either the Madeira Islands Open – Portugal or the Saint-Omer Open presented by Neuflize OBC, which are dual-ranked with The European Tour and carry increased prize funds. These tournaments are like Major Championships for the Challenge Tour and the current Rankings show exactly why.
There is still plenty of opportunity to make an assault on the Rankings and reach the Holy Grail – a European Tour card for 2013 awarded to the top 20 come the end of the season.
The M2M Russian Challenge Cup and the Kazakhstan Open the following week will be an important fortnight in September. Both tournaments have larger purses than most weeks, and it was in Kazakhstan last year that Tommy Fleetwood won his maiden Challenge Tour title en route to winning the Rankings.
We also have a three-week stretch in Scandanavia following next week’s English Challenge, and two new events towards the end of the campaign in the Challenge de Cataluña and the Czech Challenge, which is just before the fortnight in Italy for the Mugello Tuscany Open and the season-ending Apulia San Domenico Grand Final.
Hartø has accumulated the most top ten finishes this season, with five, and Lockerie and Wakefield each have four, but perhaps the most surprising package so far is 20 year old Stal, who turned professional late last year after winning the 2011 French Amateur Championship and claimed the Kärnten Golf Open presented by Mazda – on a sponsor’s invite – and the Credit Suisse Challenge in the space of five weeks.
He is being widely tipped to win again and gain automatic promotion to The European Tour, as compatriot Benjamin Hebert and Englishman Sam Little did last year, and another player on the radar is Denmark’s Morten Orum Madsen.
Madsen has regularly been in contention in his rookie season on the Challenge Tour and booked a place in The 141st Open Championship through Local Final Qualifying, so he misses this week in Italy to play on a somewhat larger stage.
So far the Challenge Tour has seen six course records bettered or equalled, five tournaments decided by a play-off, six hole-in-ones and two wire-to-wire winners – Raymond Russell in the Challenge Provincia di Varese and Sam Walker in the Scottish Hydro Challenge, which was reduced to 54 holes and decided by a play-off, in which he beat Wakefield.
Englishman Charlie Ford has had the lowest round of the season so far, a ten under par 61 in the final round of the Fred Olsen Challenge de España, and the lowest 72-hole total was 17 under 263 by Russell in Italy. Stal, however, had the lowest 72 holes in relation to par, a 20 under par 268 in the Kärnten Golf Open presented by Mazda.
The highest cut of the campaign so far is five over par, at both the Saint-Omer Open presented by Neuflize OBC and the Pacific Rubiales Colombia Classic, and the lowest was two under, at the Fred Olsen Challenge de España, the Scottish Hydro Challenge and the K Kärnten Golf Open.