Challenge Tour Outright (available on Skybet – Golf-Money List and Specials-Challenge Tour OOM Request-a-bet)
Aaron Rai 1 point e/way @ 25-1
Cormac Sharvin 0.50 points e/way @ 66-1
Mark F Hasstrup 0.25 points e/way @ 125-1
each-way 1/4 odds 1234
Welcome to the first of hopefully many previews on the 2017 Challenge Tour season.
Whilst the Tour does not commence until March 23rd in Kenya, it is customary to have a peek at the ante-post odds for the championship. Unfortunately it appears that the bookmakers are reluctant to offer prices on the field but having used Skybet’s ‘Request-a-bet’, they have posted odds on a few of the more fancied players from yours truly.
For those less familiar with the hierarchy, the Challenge Tour is the second-tier tour for professionals and is considered the best way to obtain a full European Tour card. Players battle it out to qualify for the Grand Final (held in Oman for the third consecutive season but a course used through previous years) where 45 contenders battle it out for the final 15 cards. Players need to show consistency through the year, picking up plenty of top-5 finishes, especially in the richer events such as the Rolex, whilst a win or two never does any harm. Nerves start fraying towards September as those ‘on the bubble’ will need to conquer any fear, whilst there is always heartbreak and joy in equal measure after the 72nd hole at Muscat at the beginning of November.
Saying all that, winning too many is not good for ante-post punters.
In the last few years Kris Broberg, Brooks Koepka, Moritz Lampert and Bernd Ritthammer have all won three times in the same season but not one finished as the table leader. Ritthammer can be excused as he won his third on finals day but with the Tour offering an instant card after three wins, players are often then tempted to either take it easy or take the invitations to the main Tour and garner the experience.
Comprising this year of 26 events, the Tour also features an early co-sanctioned event with the main European Tour – Portugal in May – and whilst many of the contenders will be slightly outclassed at this stage of their careers, there will be a decent amount that have taken in similar conditions and, perhaps crucially, had experience during the close season, of conditions throughout the Algarve Tour. Events such as this, the Rolex and Kazakhstan in September are crucial in racking up points.
Fortunate enough to back the last two table toppers, the recollection is of players that have caught the eye in previous seasons but also those that have played a decent level of competitive golf through the break. Both Ricardo Gouveia and Jordan Smith had previous open form with Gouveia having a record of quality finishes as an amateur and then winning once and recording finishes of 13/12/9 in his opening year at this level. The Englishman has always been similarly well thought of but made his name as an amateur when winning the prestigious Brabazon Trophy and, as such, being picked for the GB&Ire Walker Cup team of 2013. Turning professional a year later, he won the EuroPro Tour order of merit with two wins at his first attempt, before going on to cement a comfortable season here last year.
Those efforts would have merited consideration on their own but both played and won on the between-season Algarve Tour, using the quality conditions and often coastal winds to harness their games in preparation. Why change a winning formula?
Headline pick has to be soon-to-be 22-year-old Aaron Rai.
With no stats available, following the Tour is a labour of love, consistently watching leaderboards and trying to find progress hidden by actual finishes and Rai has been on the list for several months.
Rai has worked his way from the lowly ranks, turning professional at 17 and honing his craft throughout. At age 15 he found surprise fame when thrashing the world record for consecutive 3 metre putts (207 to the old 136) and whilst that was using some putting mat or suchlike, it did put his name into readers of golf facts that few others are bothered about!
We are more interested in recent form though and, after an opening year at EuroPro level, he improved greatly through 2015 winning once and recording seven top-10s, eventually nabbing his Challenge Tour card when 5th in the order of merit behind a certain Jordan Smith.
His first full year at this level will have been one of learning but it was the chances he did not take that caught the eye. In-contention (for me that is being in the top-10 going into Sunday) for eight of his twenty-two events, he notched a 2nd, 3rd and four further top-10s in a season that saw him finish an agonising 18th in the R2O. With the then-amateur Romain Langasque allowed to earn points, that meant Rai was only two places and less that 3000euros off his card.
It was pleasing to see that Rai has followed his previous tour-mate Smith to the Algarve Tour and even better to see him win in January, clocking 14 birdies in the two-round event. Consistent since that win, he is deservedly high on that mini-tour ranking and will surely be inspired not only to beat last season’s decent result but to be in the same locker room as Smith. I’m looking for an early win to just give this quality player a chance to relax through the year and for him to be a serious challenger over the next couple of seasons.
Cormac Sharvin‘s rise through the ranks started a more tradition way with a win in the Irish Amateur (beating Paul Dunne) before running-up at both the same event and the Lytham Trophy. Previous winners of the first-names include McIlroy, Lowry, McGinley, Clarke and Pod whilst his big breakthrough victory finally came at the Brabazon Trophy (Smith link, see!) and a nomination at the 2015 Walker Cup.
Going unbeaten through that event at Royal Lytham, he and fellow team-mates Dunne and the equally promising Ashley Chesters and Gavin Moynihan thrashed a USA team comprising the mercurial Bryson Dechambeau and Jordan Niebrugge (silver medal winner at The Open in 2015).
The Ardglass golfer didn’t have a particularly sparkling opening campaign here in 2016 finishing outside the top-100 after just nine events but this is a chance to get with a hugely promising youngster who will hopefully follow fellow Walker Cup player Dunne into the big league and at a price that may not be seen again for a while. Given their similar records and Dunne’s preference for coastal linsky course, it has been no shock to see Sharvin play very well on that Algarve Tour, winning his maiden just a week after Rai. As I write, Sharvin has just finished 4th in his latest two-rounder, recording 13 birdies. Yes, the courses are open to low scores but the Challenge Tour itself only had three events finishing in worse than 10-under last season, so going in with confidence in the approach and putting game is no harm whatsoever.
The final pick is one of faith.
Since a very promising period between 2008 and 2010, Mark Haastrup has gone on the missing list in terms of top class golf.
Ranked 26th at this level’s OOM after a win in Sweden in 2008, best highlights include top-3 in Portugal and the Vivendi in 2010, whilst a handful of top-10s through the last few seasons give some hope of a revival at some point, and that may be now.
Confidence is a huge thing and the 32-year-old will surely be buzzing after a stellar season on the Nordic Tour, winning four events with eight accompanying top-10 finishes, all adding up to hosing up on the OOM. What this form is worth is a guess but with this seasons Challenge Tour having a lean towards the likes of similar courses, it is hoped this big-priced dart can get a decent enough start and kick-on when we travel to Switzerland, France, Italy, Sweden, Finland, and of course home country Denmark, scene of his best main Tour result when 18th last season behind the likes of Pieters, Kjeldsen, Gouveia, Kaymer et al.
Hopefully at least one of these players will prove consistent enough to challenge throughout the year and give us a run. The prices I have put up are available until this article has been put up but I believe there is about 15% in them, so taking slightly less is fine.
Good Luck to all, see you for the first weekly preview in the second-half of March.