The premiere edition of the Nelson Mandela Championship presented by ISPS Handa is set to host a plethora of Challenge Tour and Qualifying School graduates this week - many embarking on their debut seasons on The European Tour.
In what promises to be an intriguing season-opener in South Africa, 23 of the 28 players who gained their card at the marathon Qualifying School Final Stage last week have made the sizeable journey to the tips of the African continent to immediately capitalise on their success in securing their European Tour playing privileges for 2013.
Additionally, 18 players who rubber-stamped their ascent with a top-21 finish on the Challenge Tour in 2012 are also in Durban this week looking to make a successful step up to the top tier of European golf.
Of the aforementioned graduates, there are 17 players – ten from the Challenge Tour and seven from Qualifying School – who will be striding into unchartered territory as they embark upon their rookie seasons on The European Tour.
James Busby, Kristoffer Broberg, Daniel Brooks, JB Hansen, Scott Henry, Max Kieffer, Espen Kofstad, Chris Paisley, Eddie Pepperell and Gary Stal will all commence their maiden forays onto The European Tour after graduating from the Challenge Tour in 2012, while Bjorn Åkesson, Scott Arnold, Matteo Delpodio, Moritz Lampert, Alexander Levy, Chris Lloyd and Morten Orum Madsen will do the same after successfully navigating the treacherous waters of the gruelling six-round examination in Spain.
Englishman Pepperell, who finished 13th in the Challenge Tour Rankings last season in a term that yielded his first professional triumph after gaining an unlikely place in the field at May’s Allianz Open Cotes d’Armor Bretagne, said he was feeling relaxed and reflected that any strain he might be feeling as he prepares to begin his first season on The European Tour is purely self-inflicted.
“To be honest I feel like I do ahead of any tournament really,” said Pepperell after a Tuesday practice round in Durban. “I find it’s not the pressure of the tournament that affects the way I feel, it’s more the pressure I put on myself and the expectations I put on myself.
“But that’s what my game gives me, knowing what I can and should be doing produces that pressure. It’s not so much that I’m playing on The European Tour that’s making me feel anxious or excited, it’s more the way I’m playing and the way I feel because I know good golf is good golf anywhere you play really and if you just allow yourself to do it then you can play well on any golf course and at any level.”
After finishing 35th on the Challenge Tour himself in 2012, Sweden’s Åkesson travelled to the Final Stage of Qualifying School knowing he needed a top 25 finish at PGA Catalunya Resort to secure promotion.
The Malmo man was outside of that mark until after the fourth round, when an impressive five under par 67 on the difficult Stadium Course propelled him into contention for a card, and despite a nervy couple of days – and a three over par 75 to finish – Åkesson secured the 14th card.
He said: “I did have a few problems sleeping before that final round because I knew that although I had a couple of shots I still needed to play very well in the sixth round because it’s a tough course. It was a mental challenge the whole day and I just wanted it to be over so when I holed a chip on the 17th for par and knew I’d made it, the feeling was unbelievable.”
That feeling of elation is an emotion that Åkesson is looking to capitalise on this week as the Swede dismissed any lingering tiredness from Qualifying School, and the 23 year old insisted that despite the noticeable step up to The European Tour, the setup retained aspects of familiarity that have put him at his ease.
“It feels really good to be here but in a way it still feels familiar because a lot of the players I know and used to play with on the Challenge Tour are here so it feels quite normal,” continued Åkesson, whose best finish in 2012 came with a third place at the Finnish Challenge in August.
“I’ve been in South Africa before; I played at Leopard Creek (venue for next week’s Alfred Dunhill Championship) a couple of years ago and will again next week so it feels great to be getting started with these two tournaments.
“I just want to keep playing well. I spent a couple of weeks with my coach before the Q-School and changed a couple of things so I’m just looking to keep the momentum going because the game feels good. It would’ve been nice in a way for a week or two off but to keep playing after a week that tests your game as much as Q-School does is the best decision.”
With the name of a certain Branden Grace illuminating the entry list as almost a reminder of what dreams can be achieved in the year following advancement, the 2012 graduates will be hoping that this year’s sensational story could be theirs – and that journey starts this week at Royal Durban Golf Club.