By Scott Grayston
No fewer than 15 Challenge Tour graduates have been in the winner’s circle in the European Tour’s 26 Race to Dubai events so far this season. That means that over half of the winners, including two-time defending US Open champion Brooks Koepka, rose to the pinnacle of the sport thanks to the grounding they received on the European Tour’s feeder tour.
Koepka graduated in 2013 from the Challenge Tour after winning three events out of 10 and finishing in the top 10 on four other occasions en route to becoming a multi-Major champion. His record in Majors is sublime. Since 2015 he has finished in the top 20 in 10 out of 12 Majors. In addition, last year his younger brother Chase, also graduated from the Challenge Tour and will be hoping he can follow in his brother’s footsteps to the top echelons of the sport.
The Challenge Tour is the breeding ground for the best emerging golfing talent in Europe and beyond. Some other notable graduates aside from the Koepka duo are 2016 Rio Olympic gold and silver medalists Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson – who are also Major champions – as well as reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, two-time Major winner Martin Kaymer, Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjørn, Matt Fitzpatrick and Tyrrell Hatton – just to name a few. There’s a strong chance that seven or more players in Bjørn’s European Ryder Cup team in Paris in September will be Challenge Tour graduates which proves how beneficial this tour can be for a player’s development. Previously, 27 former Challenge Tour players have played in The Ryder Cup but expect this number to rise in September with Hatton and Fleetwood’s debuts looking particularly inevitable.
This year the Challenge Tour season has become the ‘Road to Ras Al Khaimah’ after it was confirmed that the emirate will host the Challenge Tour Grand Final for the first time at Al Hamra Golf Club from October 31 – November 3, 2018. The event will feature a prize fund of €420,000, making it one of the most lucrative events on the Challenge Tour schedule. Sitting at the northern-most point of the United Arab Emirates, RAK is one of seven emirates which make up the UAE and is just a 45-minute drive from Dubai.
Previously RAK had hosted the penultimate event of the Challenge Tour season for the past two years and received many plaudits for the immaculate condition of the Peter Harradine designed course and the impeccable hospitality players and guests received. The Challenge Tour signed a deal for the Grand Final to take place in RAK for the next three years and in this showpiece event, the top 45 players in the Road to Ras Al Khaimah Rankings battle it out to see who will finish in the top 15 to automatically earn a European Tour card for the next season.
One of the latest success stories was kickstarted when England’s Jordan Smith, who went on to become a European Tour winner last season in the Porsche European Open, was victorious in 2016 in the Ras Al Khaimah Golf Challenge to secure his position as 2016 Challenge Tour Number One. In his maiden season on the European Tour, the 25 year old had one victory and four top tens which helped him finish 24th in the Race to Dubai to earn a spot in the prestigious season-ending DP World Tour Championship. It will be intriguing to see who the next flock of stars will be to blossom into some of the world’s top players via the career-defining Challenge Tour when the 2018 season concludes at the end of October in the Ras Al Khaimah Challenge Tour Grand Final.