THE CHALLENGE TOUR EDUCATION
Matt Cooper takes a look inside the Challenge Tour and how it prepares the players for life on the full European Tour.
With just two events of the 2008 Challenge Tour season remaining the pressure is on as the players decamp to Italy for the final fortnight of the season.
This week in Margara the field has one final opportunity to make the top 45 places in the rankings which will earn them a spot at next week’s San Domenico Grand Final after which the top 20 in the rankings will earn a full European Tour card for the 2009 season.
It is a period of high stress as the players ply their trade on a stage littered with trap-doors that could, at any moment, open up whipping them, and their dreams, away into a murky black hole.
It must be maddening for the PGA to observe that the play-off-style tension they crave for the Fedex Cup is naturally created at the lower levels – in the culmination of the Nationwide and Challenge Tour seasons (plus the even more excruciating Qualifying Schools that follow).
As unpleasant as these fraught weeks must be, they should also be viewed as a dress rehearsal for the tests to come at higher levels.
But in what other ways does the Challenge Tour prepare golfers for the bright lights?
Chile’s Felipe Aguilar was one of eight players to win twice on the 2007 Challenge Tour – he was also the first to add a win on the main tour, doing so at the Enjoy Jakarta Astro Indonesian Open in February.
In May he very nearly pinched the Irish Open after a back nine birdie blitz reminiscent of his wins in 2007 and speaking the following week he was convinced that his experiences on the feeder tour had been vital for his golfing education.
“The way I attacked the back nine at the Irish Open was due entirely to the Challenge Tour – yes!” he exclaimed. “Two or three good holes is no help when everyone else is shooting four or five. You need six or seven!
“But it is really important to understand that when you get to the main tour the courses are too difficult to go that low all the time, but the principle remains the same – to be unafraid of attacking the win.”
The Chilean was quick to point out that the courses on the two tours are often very different in style, something David Horsey – a double-winner this year – agrees with.
“Mostly the Challenge Tour layouts suit bombers who are holing every putt they look at,” he explained. “They may also be a bit on the short side or not have the defences up like on the main tour.”
That extra severity of European Tour conditions revealed themselves to Horsey at the Quinn Direct British Masters.
“The rough here at the Belfry has been genuinely penal, which is not always the case at the lower level. And whilst you have to attack the pin non-stop on the Challenge Tour, here the best option might be to leave yourself a 40-foot putt.
“It doesn’t matter about the conditions come the back nine on Sunday though – that’s when you learn the lessons of fighting for the win. It’s a tough school in that respect.”
Aside from the conditions on the course, the experience off it is something else which has lately come to characterise the tour.
Aguilar gets dewy-eyed when remembering the end-of-day meals the players would enjoy together.
“I have seen the Director of the Tour a few times recently,” he told me, “and I’m always telling him that I miss the rapport. The atmosphere was great.”
One event in particular, the Kazakhstan Open at the Nurtau GC, has quickly gained a reputation for typifying this camaraderie – the players refer to it in much the same way children discuss fondly remembered school-trips.
Not that the event isn’t taken seriously – as the biggest prize fund of the year no-one can afford to take their eye off the ball.
But it probably does sum up the modern Challenge Tour very well: international, competitive and sociable; an excellent stepping stone to the serious business of the European Tour.
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