Major champions graduate in style from the Challenge Tour 

Liam Kelly

Brooks Koepka - 2019 PGA Championship Winner (Photo: Getty Images)

Liam Kelly

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Virtually unnoticed alongside the tumultuous climax to the US Open at Pebble Beach, the European Challenge Tour presented the Hauts de France-Pas de Calais Golf Open at Saint-Omer GC. 

Naturally, the focus of golf fans worldwide centred on the big names jousting for Major glory, but, be it ever so humble, the Challenge Tour’s legacy was significantly relevant to the narrative of the 2019 US Open. 

Now 30 years old, Europe’s secondary and developmental Tour has for decades provided a platform for fledgling professionals to hone their craft and discover if they have what it takes to operate at the highest level. The roll of honour is impressive and inspirational to the up and coming crop of Tour players.   

From the Class of 1999 we give you Justin Rose, US Open champion in 2013 and Olympic Champion of 2016. Also graduating from the ’99 Challenge Tour campaign was the uber-competitive Ian Poulter, a Ryder Cup winner four times with 17 individual victories on his golfing CV. 

Henrik Stenson earned his full Tour playing rights via the Challenge Tour in 2000. He didn’t do too badly either, with his Open Championship victory in 2016 the highlight of a successful career. 

Germany’s Martin Kaymer emerged from the Class of 2006. Four years later he became US PGA champion, and in 2014 annexed the US Open title, as well as reaching World number one status. Louis Oosthuizen (2003 Challenge Tour) went on to become one of only seven South Africans to win a Major title, a feat he achieved in the 2010 Open at St Andrews. 

And then we come to Brooks Koepka, arguably the supreme example of a player making the most of the opportunities available in Europe via the Challenge Tour. Koepka had the breadth of vision to look beyond the shores of the USA that is rare indeed in young American players, many of whom take the College-Web.Com route to the PGA Tour.   

Europe just would not figure in their calculations, but ambition motivated Koepka to take the road less travelled by his countrymen. How well it worked out for him. 

“Going over to play the Challenge Tour was really, really cool. To get to travel the world at 22, 21 years old, and do what you do for a living is pretty neat. I love travelling. I’ll go anywhere. I think it’s so much fun. And some of the places we went to were pretty neat.  

And to go over there, I think it helped me grow up a little bit and really figure out that, hey, play golf, get it done, and then you can really take this somewhere. And I built a lot of confidence off of that,” he said.  

The Florida native played the Challenge Tour in 2012 and 13, winning four times in 20 months, and confirmed his quality with a Turkish Airlines Open success on the full Tour in 2014. 

The rest is history. Two US Opens and two US PGA victories since 2017 have brought Koepka front and centre in any discussion of any Major championship, and that will continue for a long time to come.  

Koepka’s story shows prospective Tour players what can be achieved by ambition, hard work, and thinking outside the box. And while he fell just short in finishing second to winner Gary Woodland at Pebble Beach, the competitors in Saint Omer were no less invested than Koepka and the elite at Pebble in fighting for every par and every birdie. 

The eventual winner Robin Roussel of France took home €30,400 prize money. That’s a good wage for a week’s work but a paltry sum compared to the US Open champion’s $2.25 million (€2.05 million) cheque. 

However, Roussel and so many other Challenge Tour players have their eyes on their ultimate prize which is a licence to play on the lucrative full Tour. Ireland’s Cormac Sharvin kept himself in the running by finishing third in Saint-Omer, and is currently sixth in the rankings.  

Ruaidhri McGee tied for eighth place. Currently ranked number 30 he is well in contention for a top15 spot and a European Tour card for next season. There are plenty of opportunities to come, including the Irish Challenge at Headfort GC (Oct 10-13). 

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