Ras Al Khaimah Challenge Tour Grand Final preview

Having previously held the penultimate event on the calendar since 2016, the picturesque Al Hamra Golf Club will go one better this year with the next generation of golfing stars descending on the club from October 31-November 3 as they aim to seal a coveted European Tour card for next season by finishing in the top 15 of the Road to Ras Al Khaimah Rankings in the Challenge Tour’s season finale.

It came as no surprise when the club in the northern emirate was chosen to hold the season-ending event after two hugely successful years hosting the Ras Al Khaimah Golf Challenge, which was the penultimate stop on the Challenge Tour schedule. The immaculate Peter Harradine-designed par 72 Championship golf course, which measures 7,325 yards at full length, meanders around four inter-connected open water lagoons merging seamlessly with the water of the Arabian Gulf. The layout has drawn strong praise from the Challenge Tour players for the stern but fair test it offers.

Jordan Smith knows a thing or two about the course having won the inaugural Ras Al Khaimah Golf Challenge in 2016. Smith went on to secure his first European Tour card for the 2017 season and got his hands on European Tour silverware for the first time at the Porsche European Open later that year. The English ace made his debut at the season-ending DP World Tour Championship after a terrific rookie campaign which also saw him finish tied ninth in his first Major, the US PGA Championship, and looks set to tee off at Jumeirah Golf Estates again next month after
a steady season on Tour.

“I’ve obviously got very fond memories of Al Hamra Golf Club and Ras Al Khaimah,” said Smith, when we caught up with him at the Portugal Masters. “It was a fantastic place to get my second Challenge Tour win of the season and it helped me top the Rankings which was great. The 18th hole always comes to mind when I think of Al Hamra, it’s definitely the signature hole of the course with water all the way down the right but it’s reachable in two which makes it really exciting and I’m sure the Challenge Tour players of 2018 will enjoy it as they aim to finish the season in the top 15.

“Heading into the Ras Al Khaimah Golf Challenge in 2016 I was quite relaxed as I was in the top three of the Rankings so I didn’t have too much pressure on my shoulders. But for the guys that were on the bubble they must have been feeling a lot of pressure heading into the event and even more so this year as it’s the Grand Final.

“I try to visit the emirate a couple of times of year as it’s such a beautiful place. I visited just before the tournament last year and the course was in very good condition; you would never have guessed that it was the tail-end of a scorching summer season in Ras Al Khaimah. I’m sure it will be of the same standard this year and if the guys can keep the ball straight off the tee and stay away from the lagoons, the course can be relatively straightforward but with so much at stake it will definitely test the field.”

Marcus Kinhult, who was Smith’s final round playing partner in 2016, also has fond memories of the course after finishing tied fourth in 2016 before a top 20 finish the following year helped him on his way to a European Tour card for the 2018 season.

“Ras Al Khaimah is a really stunning place and Al Hamra Golf Club is a brilliant golf course,” said the Swede who currently sits in 46th on the Race to Dubai Rankings. “The course can be pretty straightforward as everything is right in front of you and the weather is always beautiful but the 18th hole will be a challenge for all the golfers in contention for a European Tour card. It’s going to be a great course for the Grand Final.

“The first year I played there I was in contention for the title and that was probably the first time I had been up there in a Challenge Tour event so that was really good fun. You have mixed feelings towards the back-end of the season you’re all challenging for a European Tour card but only 15 players get their hands on one so you can get nervous and feel the pressure but I used to get a kick out of it! It’s a special feeling and if you play well you’ll be up there at the end of the season.”

The Challenge Tour class of 2018 are set to be treated to the best-conditioned course to date after course architect Harradine visited the club earlier this year in preparation for the season-ending event. Following the Swiss designer’s visit, Al Hamra’s agronomy team has been working tirelessly on Harradine’s recommendations, along with Graeme MacNiven from the European Tour’s agronomy division, to get the course in the best possible shape for the visit of the Road to Ras Al Khaimah’s top 45 players. All 40 course bunkers have been renovated; fairway contours reinstated, tee complexes realigned and greens expanded to present players with a stern but fair challenge ahead of the first tee time on /October 31.

Spearheading the Road to Ras Al Khaimah Rankings will be Denmark’s Joachim B.Hansen who has two Challenge Tour victories under his belt in 2018 to go along with four more top tens. Hansen will be hoping to complete a hat-rick of triumphs at Ras Al Khaimah to cement his place at the top of the Rankings and be named Challenge Tour Number One.

“Having been to Ras Al Khaimah and played Al Hamra Golf Club before, I’m thrilled that the Grand Final will now be played here,” said the 28 year old.

“It’s the perfect location for a tournament like this, plus the golf course is both fun to play and a great test for the Challenge Tour’s best players. It’s been a wonderful season for me personally, and I’m really hoping to close out the campaign on top of the Road to Ras Al Khaimah and it would be such a fitting place to graduate onto the European Tour.”

Plenty of players will be hoping to spoil Hansen’s party with Sebastian Sodeberg closest to knocking him off his perch. The Swede has enjoyed a fine season with four top tens as well as securing the second Challenge Tour title of his career at the Italian Challenge presented by Cashback World. A good showing from the 28 year old in the Grand Final could be enough for him to end Hansen’s reign at the top. Finland’s Kim Koivu lies in third but has already sealed his European Tour card after collecting three Challenge Tour trophies this season at the Belt & Road Colorful Yunnan Open, Vierumaki Finnish Challenge and the Rolex Trophy. The Finn is still expected to play in the season finale as he aims to put the icing on the cake by finishing the season top of the Rankings.