The Challenge Tour Grand Final

Matt Cooper is reporting live this week from the Challenge Tour Grand Final in Italy. Here he looks the final day.

Saturday – the final round
A quick reminder: at the start of play Australian Daniel Gaunt led on six-under-par, holding a two-shot lead over final round playing partner Bernd Wiesberger of Austria. He had a three-shot lead over the third member of his three-ball, American Chris Baker, plus Sweden’s Peter Gustafsson and Englishman Matt Haines who were playing in the penultimate group.
Early movers
On the front nine two players went low, giving themselves the tantalising prospect of finishing in the top two, bouncing up into the top 20 of the rankings and gaining European Tour cards.
The first was Welshman Stuart Manley but no sooner was his name on the leaderboard than it was off again. He eventually bogied the final hole, finished in a tie for eighth and 23rd in the rankings; the three players who tied for fifth, one shot better than him, won 3,000 Euro more than Manley. That figure would have put him in the top 20.
Swede Pelle Edberg was going even lower after a run of five birdies in six holes from the third. Expectations kill a golfer, however, and once Edberg had the prospect of regaining his card, he made bogey on nine and double bogey on eleven. He finished in a tie for fifth and 27th in the rankings.
The leading contenders
Meanwhile, the chasers were striking early blows. Both Haines and Wiesberger birdied the par-three second and short par-four third; Wiesberger now shared the lead, with Haines one behind.
The sixth hole changed that situation: Wiesberger found a poor lie off the fairway, attacked the pin, missed the green and three-putted for double bogey; Gaunt birdied to open up a three shot gap over the tall Austrian.
Wiesberger is a talented and spirited golfer, however, and responded with birdies on the seventh and ninth holes. Gaunt and Haines also added a birdie apiece before the turn.
Climbing the leaderboard
The front nine challenges of Manley and Edberg couldn’t be sustained; but Lorenzo Gagli and Lee Slattery timed their moves to perfection.
Slattery had an outside chance of winning at the start of the day, but one early birdie and bogies on ten and eleven wasn’t enough to contend; but a good finish was crucial for his future. Three birdies in the final five holes secured his place in the top 15 of the rankings.
The Italian favourite Gagli was eve more impressive (and couldn’t keep the smile off his face afterwards).
Previously 27th in the rankings and 15th in the event, the close friend of Edoardo Molinari made the turn in level par and then went on a life-changing charge around the back nine.
Three birdies and an eagle secured a tie for third and 17th place in the rankings.
Earlier this week I bemoaned visiting the new heartland of golf (Italy) and not seeing either of the Molinari brothers or Matteo Manassero, but in his way Gagli added to the story of Italian in 2010.
Nervous agents
It was not only the players who were getting a bit twitchy on the back nine. I bumped into four managers, agents or player’s representatives and each of them was a little edgy.
They knew exactly what this meant to their players: they have witnessed the struggle first-hand; they were urging every putt to drop, every shot to avoid trouble.
It worked for some but not for others.
Wiesberger fades
Playing the tough 14th hole Gaunt held a one shot lead over Wiesberger and Haines.
Ahead of the final group Haines hit his approach close but failed to make birdie. As Gaunt and Wiesberger prepared to hit their approaches two local fans following the Haines group wandered across the green towards the 15th tee.
Wiesberger shouted at them: “Hey, get off the green! What are you doing?”
He watched Gaunt and Baker find the putting surface with their approaches but he was still rattled – his went through the green, played a clumsy recovery and two-putted for bogey.
He birdied the par-five 15th but was now playing catch-up and wasn’t staying patient: he lost his tee shot on the 16th, made double bogey and finished bogey-bogey. He was out of the running.
Head to head down the final four holes
It was now a case of Gaunt versus Haines. Gaunt had a one shot advantage, Haines had the benefit of playing first.
On the par-five 15th he launched a huge drive, knocked his approach close and holed out for eagle: he now had sole possession of the lead.
Behind him Gaunt missed the fairway but made birdie to join him on eight-under-par.
Both players parred the 16th and 17th holes before Haines closed with a save par.
Gaunt hit the fairway but pulled his approach left and his recovery flew 30 feet from the hole: he liked his par putt for a short while, but then saw it dive wide and 20-year-old Haines was the champion.
“So many young Challenge Tour players have gone on to win on the main tour in recent years,” he was told on television afterwards, “can you be another?”
“I don’t know,” he answered, “I might need a bit more experience.”
Was it the highlight of his short career, they prompted.
“Oh yeah, definitely.”
And was it nice to share it with his family and girlfriend, they asked.
“Not my girlfriend, mate – that’s my sister.”
Alvaro Velasco’s fine season didn’t end in glory – he was tied for 20th – but he topped the rankings and won himself the trophy and a Rolex watch.
Matt Haines jumped to second in the rankings, giving him a much better card for 2011. Gaunt also improved his card by moving from 12th to seventh.
In addition to Gagli, veteran Scot Raymond Russell moved inside the top 20, from 21st to 19th – his birdie on the 17th hole proving invaluable.
The two unlucky men were English rookie Charlie Ford and Spaniard Carlos Del Moral – they dropped out of the top 20 and will now make their way to Q-School.
Roberto Donadoni
The retired Italian footballer, a member of two World Cup squads, is a huge golf enthusiast and on the 18th hole I grabbed a quick word with him, asking about his experience of the recent Ryder Cup.
“Oh it was a great experience. I am friends with Francesco Molinari and he was able to get me tickets.
“It was a superb week. They people were so friendly and I was so amazed to see how popular the two Molinari brothers were in Wales.
“The first tee was amazing. It felt like a football stadium and we loved the singing.
“The choreography of the course and fans was magnificent – they way the 17th looked like a grand theatre. It was a remarkable week for sure.”
A longest drive
It has been a lengthy journey for the 2010 Challenge Tour: 18 countries and 25 events including Colombia, Kenya, Morocco, Egypt, Kazakhstan and Russia, in addition to all four corners of mainland Europe.
But for Adrian White, one of the European Tour scoring team, one long journey has ended and another now begins because someone needs to drive the tour truck back to Surrey in south-east England and on Sundays and Bank Holidays (which this Monday is) lorries are not permitted on