Challenge Tour emerging as fertile proving ground

Edoardo Molinari during the final round of the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond Golf Club.

Edoardo Molinari during the final round of the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond Golf Club.

TOURNAMENT PREVIEW

Gujarat Kensville Challenge

Just 26 tournaments and 60,000 euros to go for anyone wanting to play on the 2012 European Tour.

Those are the thoughts of Europe’s second-tier players as they tee it up in India this week in the Gujarat Kensville Challenge, the first tournament of the 2011 European Challenge Tour schedule.

Playing a tournament in India is a first for the Challenge Tour. The Jeev Milkha Singh-designed Kensville Golf Club in Ahmedabad sounds the starting gun in the race to obtain one of 20 cards on offer for the 2012 European Tour.

New events also will be played in Italy and Norway on a circuit that visits 18 countries on four continents. Those 20 cards will be handed out to the top 20 on the money list at the conclusion of the Challenge Tour Grand Final in October.

Attaining one of those cards is no easy feat. About 60,000 euros will be required to earn the last card. Last year, France’s Alexandre Kaleka finished 20th with 58,888 euros in earnings. Alvaro Velasco of Spain took the top card with 134,297 euros.

“The standard on the Challenge Tour is really high,” said England’s Steve Lewton, who finished 80th on last year’s Challenge Tour circuit before getting his European Tour card at Qualifying School.

“There isn’t much difference in quality between the top guys on the Challenge Tour and many of the players on the main tour. It’s tough. Anyone who gets a card from this year’s Challenge Tour will have played really well, and will have a chance to be successful on the main tour.”

The Challenge Tour has proved a good learning ground for many successful European Tour pros. Sweden’s Henrik Stenson won the Challenge Tour Order of Merit in 2000 and has never looked back. South Africa’s Trevor Immelman finished 10th that year. Eight years later, he won the Masters.

Peter Hanson was fifth in the Challenge Tour rankings in 2003 and made his Ryder Cup debut last year. Martin Kaymer was fourth in 2006. Last year, he won the PGA Championship and finished the season atop the European Tour money list.

England’s David Horsey topped the Challenge Tour in 2008 and got his first big tour win when he triumphed at the BMW International Open.

Edoardo Molinari of Italy may be the Challenge Tour’s biggest success story. He topped the rankings in 2009 with 242,980 euros, smashing the earnings record set by Horsey by nearly 100,000 euros. Molinari won twice on the European Tour last year, and made his Ryder Cup debut.

Of course, not every Challenge Tour graduate stays on the main tour. Many players yo-yo back and forth. However, Lewton’s take remains true: If you can cut it on Europe’s junior circuit, then you have a chance to excel on the European Tour.

Just ask Molinari, Stenson, Immelman, Horsey, Hanson and Kaymer.

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