The 2021 Challenge Tour graduates
The 2021 Challenge Tour graduates

Challenge Tour graduates player profiles as DP World Tour welcomes new members


Golf expert Ben Coley provides a detailed guide to the 20 new DP World Tour recruits who graduated through the Challenge Tour in 2021.

Marcus Helligkilde

  • Age: 25
  • Nationality: Danish
  • Best Race to Dubai finish: Rookie
Marcus Helligkilde with the Road to Mallorca trophy
Marcus Helligkilde with the Road to Mallorca trophy

Danish golf is firmly on the rise at the moment and while the Hojgaard twins account for most of that, European Tour wins for JB Hansen and Jeff Winther underline the strength now on show. Marcus Helligkilde, only recently turned 25, will join these more familiar names on the DP World Tour having topped the Road to Mallorca with three wins since August, including in the Grand Final.

It's some turnaround for Helligkilde, who breezed through the Nordic Golf League only to struggle badly on the Challenge Tour in 2019, ranking outside the top 100 on the money list. Another successful NGL campaign followed but despite finishing second in neighbouring Sweden back in May, only in summer did he really begin to make waves, and only in Spain did he take over at the top.

What little we've seen at European Tour level is encouraging, with finishes of 25th back home and 12th in the Dutch Open, where he found himself in the mix. Helligkilde's iron play was sharp on both occasions, though it seems he has a little work to do from the tee. With wins in Switzerland, Spain and Finland he's coped with a variety of conditions but Spain in particular has been a lucrative stop, with two Nordic Golf League wins prior to his hard-fought success last month.

"Marcus has his own way of doing things," Danish journalist Anders Sigdal told me. "He works hard, always surrounds himself with the best people, being coaches or friends; making sure that he has a positive energy around him. He doesn't use social media. It's a disturbance, he says, but he did log on to read some of the messages after the Challenge Tour win.

"You might have heard him talk about playing safe or defensively. That's his strategy: take emotions out of the equation, and rely only on facts. Hit the middle of the green rather than chasing the pin in the corner. When I talked to his coach about this, Marcus interrupted, and said 'don't give away my secrets...'"

After winning the Road to Mallorca, the secret is already out.

Ricardo Gouveia

  • Age: 30
  • Nationality: Portuguese
  • Best Race to Dubai finish: 54th (2016)

There's no doubt Ricardo Gouveia has a touch of class at Challenge Tour level, so his flying start (third in Sweden, sixth in Spain) and lucrative summer (back-to-back wins in Italy and Denmark) were not at all surprising. He went on to add top-five finishes in four of his final six starts to comfortably secure a return to the European Tour.

It's not unreasonable to suggest he's the type who looks too good for this but not quite up to European Tour standard, although such a conclusion would neglect the fact he kept his card in 2016, 2017 and 2018, twice through late heroics. And, after topping the Challenge Tour standings in 2015, he made it all the way to the following year's DP World Tour Championship, suggesting the self-belief he built with a two-win season was a big help.

Gouveia is in a similar boat now but with more experience and could continue to pay his way when his trademark accuracy off the tee counts for something. He's always been especially fond of Valderrama, where he's won a couple of minor titles, but watch for him too in Denmark, where he was eighth back in 2016 and has since won and finished fourth on the Challenge Tour. Anywhere there's an emphasis on accuracy over power, he can make it count.

It's also worth saying he's only 30, having been around for a while. Could we therefore see an even better model now Gouveia has had to go back down a level? Sky Sports' Josh Antmann says yes. "He reminds me a bit of Richard Bland, when he went back to the Challenge Tour, in that he’s there to win titles and get his card back," he told me. "He carried his own bag a lot of the time which showed, to me, the dedication he has; he's polite and friendly, one of the nicest golfers I've met, but also really focused.

"I would often see him play on his own in practice rounds and have a very regimented practice routine on the range. His headphones would be in and you could see he had great drive. He’s someone I thought is way too good for the Challenge Tour and just needed some confidence."

Gouveia certainly has that, having ended the season in scintillating form. As with all these graduates, he now has the opportunity to strike while the iron's hot, and while many of the better players are putting their feet up at last. His best European Tour finish so far? Third place, at Sun City, five years ago. He'll be back there in the first week of December.

Santiago Tarrio

  • Age: 31
  • Nationality: Spanish
  • Best Race to Dubai finish: Rookie
Santiago Tarrio
Santiago Tarrio

When I spoke to Antmann about Santiago Tarrio, his refrain was a common one: "What I don’t understand with Tarrio is… where has he been all this time? Something has definitely clicked."

And he's right. Tarrio is, at the time of writing, ranked 100th in the world, one place below Matt Kuchar, a couple ahead of the likes of Charl Schwartzel and Gary Woodland. Since the 2020 Challenge Tour Grand Final he's climbed almost 400 places, winning twice, and confirmed what he can do at European Tour level with third place in the Hero Open.

Just where has he been? Well, five years behind is the answer, because that's how long he stopped playing golf for soon after turning professional at just 17. With Spain hit hard by the global economic crisis, Tarrio simply couldn't afford to pursue his career, so went off to work as a waiter before returning to start the building process, still without significant resources, in 2014.

His first steps were tentative, missing cuts on the Alps Tour. Then, in 2018, things started to happen, as Tarrio and his team - which includes his girlfriend, Noelia, on the bag - won twice and made it to the Challenge Tour. Unlike some of those who fly through the divisions, every step has been difficult, and only in 2021 did it become clear that he's a cut above this grade, too.

"I first saw him in Italy and was super impressed with his game," says Antmann. "He hits these really low tee shots with his driver that he keeps in play but can also get amazing run-out with. A very similar low trajectory with his approach play too. He has an incredible putting grip which I’ve never seen any other player use before, but it works superbly well."

That it has, at times, Tarrio putting well when third in the Hero Open. Accurate off the tee and sharp around the greens, his game appears to have few flaws, but it might just be that his experience working for every single thing he's earned is his biggest weapon.

"I feel like finishing third at the Hero Open really helped me to believe that I do belong out here, and that I can fight for a tournament on the European Tour," he wrote in a European Tour player blog. Quietly confident and having managed to play a handful of events this year while battling for Road to Mallorca honours, he's one we should see in contention at some stage.

Julien Brun

  • Age: 29
  • Nationality: French
  • Best Race to Dubai finish: Rookie
Julien Brun
Julien Brun

Having nominated Julien Brun as one to watch at the start of the season, it was no surprise whatsoever to see the Frenchman graduate with ease, adding two wins to those he picked up on the Pro Golf Tour in 2020.

Brun was once a brilliant amateur, starring at Texas Christian University, reaching the top five in the world, and picking up a Challenge Tour title while still at college. In some ways the only real surprise is that, soon to turn 30, he's going to be stepping up to European Tour level for the first time having since been close to golfing oblivion.

He's definitely up to the task, and the struggles he's faced over the last decade must surely now help. Brun has changed plenty in pursuit of what he knows he's capable of, the turning point when he decided to move to Prague with his Czech girlfriend in 2019, where he credits a new physical coach and regime for being the basis of his improved play.

"Ten years ago he was clearly France's number one hope - it's fair to say that a lot of people here thought we had at last a player capable of making his way to world's top 50," says French journalist Alex Mazas.

"He chose to stay in the US after graduating and try to make his way up to the PGA Tour through the Mackenzie Tour Canada, but unfortunately he played poorly then, and ultimately found himself with no other option but to come back to France. It was a good move obviously, even if it took him some time to rebound.

"Julien rebuilt his career step-by-step, cleverly, by hiring a coach of experience (Olivier Léglise, who worked with Gregory Bourdy and Romain Wattel among others) and a team of specialists. He accepted the fact that he had to start again from the bottom and found success on the Pro Golf Tour before this successful Challenge Tour campaign."

Alex also tells me that Brun now takes full advantage of the practice facilities as Albatross Golf Resort, which has been home to the Czech Masters since 2014 and will be again in August 2022. By then, I suspect he'll already have his card locked up for 2023 and given his win at Pleneuf, watch out for the Kenya Open as a potential spring breakthrough.

Frederic Lacroix

  • Age: 26
  • Nationality: French
  • Best Race to Dubai finish: Rookie
Frederic Lacroix
Frederic Lacroix

At the risk of over-simplifying the process or underselling the achievement, Frederic Lacroix has evidently trotted along the modern path to the European Tour without a hitch: success as an amateur, wins on the Alps Tour, prove too good for the Challenge Tour. The only thing he's failed to do this year is win, despite entering the final round inside the top ten on six occasions.

Particularly strong towards the end of the campaign, averaging less than 69 per round from September onward and twice opening with rounds of 64, I wondered what if anything had changed. Mazas confirmed that something had, telling me: "He told me in an interview that he saw his coach right after the Hopps Open de Provence (Lacroix finished a disappointing 67th), they established some simple guidelines for his swing, and he managed to apply them on the next tournaments."

That coach is Franck Lorenzo Vera, brother to Mike, and it's clear in speaking to Mazas that there's a rigorousness to everything Lacroix does. I can't put my finger on who it reminds me of (Collin Morikawa maybe, albeit on a smaller scale?), but he's evidently planned every detail and is now making the execution look relatively simple, which of course it is not.

"I wouldn't say his progress has been simple but it does look straightforward indeed," agreed Mazas. "I first met him at the Final Stage of the 2019 European Tour Q-School in Spain and he gave me the impression of a player who knew very accurately what he was worth at the time (good already) and what he could achieve (very high).

"It might look like overconfidence but I think he's just a guy who has understood what he needs to do to reach his full potential. So he's fully dedicated to getting better each and every day, and in my opinion he's well surrounded for that. He has a strong connection with his coach Franck Lorenzo Vera (Mike's older brother), who knows a thing or two about the highest level, and I think he commits 100% to their line of work."

What Lacroix has in skill and belief, he lacks in experience: he has only played one full-strength European Tour event, the 2019 Open de France, where a third-round 66 offered a clue as to what he might be capable of. Since then his rise has been steady and, given his summer struggles, on reflection it's wrong to suggest that he's not had any real issues along the way. He has, however, found all the answers so far.

Alfredo Garcia-Heredia

  • Age: 39
  • Nationality: Spanish
  • Best Race to Dubai finish: 170th (2008)
Alfredo Garcia-Heredia
Alfredo Garcia-Heredia

Alfredo Garcia-Heredia first earned his European Tour card in 2008, graduating through Qualifying School. He managed it again, in 2010, both times benefiting from the comforts afforded to him by playing at home. That comfort had earlier seen him take fourth place in the Open de Espana, and we saw it again in the spring when, at European Tour level, he featured in the mix across a fortnight in Tenerife.

The loss of those two events will therefore be something of a blow to the 39-year-old, who played Eisenhower Trophy golf against the Molinari brothers, Hunter Mahan and Marcus Fraser in 2002; Martin Kaymer and others a couple of years later, when teaming up with Rafa Cabrera Bello and Alvaro Quiros. As those names have all enjoyed tour-level success, he has been embroiled in a long and at times no doubt difficult battle to preserve his career.

Victory in the B-NL Challenge, where he won a marathon four-way play-off, was certainly hard-earned, and it's notable that his best performances have come under tough conditions. He also said after getting the job done at The Dutch that he putts better when he needs to.

"He rarely makes mistakes and is an exceptional iron player," says Antmann, who reckons Garcia-Heredia would've topped the GIR stats had they been produced. "He’s not wild off the tee and so doesn’t rack up big scores. I also love his demeanour on the course. He doesn’t get flustered and plays with a level head which will be great for next season. I will be very surprised if he goes straight back down to the Challenge Tour."

On the face of it, Garcia-Heredia would be a prime candidate for a season of struggle, with fewer opportunities in continental Europe this side of summer, particularly at home, and the quality of youngsters coming through arguably never better. But it's clear that he's impressed several, he does have pedigree, and experience counts for plenty.

He'll need to get back to his autumn form, though, having ended the season with form figures of WD-44, the latter when tying for last place, 18 shots behind the winner in Mallorca. He now resets for another crack at this.

Oliver Bekker

  • Age: 36
  • Nationality: South African
  • Best Race to Dubai finish: 170th (2008)
Oliver Bekker
Oliver Bekker

When South Africa hosted its first Challenge Tour events in 2020, it would've been clear to those on the co-sanctioning Sunshine Tour that this was an enormous opportunity. Yes, the swifter route is via European Tour events, but they're hard to win. When the Challenge Tour landed in South Africa, JC Ritchie won and fellow South Africans filled places two through to five.

This year, Ritchie won again, before Wilco Nienaber secured his first professional victory. Though this pair ended up 24th and 21st in the Road to Mallorca standings, Nienaber missing out narrowly having played just a handful of events, the message is clear: while this relationship remains in place, it's a good time to be a burgeoning Sunshine Tour talent.

Oliver Bekker, at 36, has largely struggled to make an impact in those co-sanctioned European Tour events, his best coming in a low-key, 54-hole fifth place in the now defunct Nelson Mandela Championship. But back in spring, second place in the Limpopo Championship then third in the Dimension Data Pro-Am won by Nienaber put him on a path to full membership at last.

"Ollie is a very friendly guy and very well liked on the Sunshine Tour. He’s also served in a few player representative categories on the Tour, so the players respect him," says Michael Vlismas, who interviewed Bekker recently and was kind enough to share his thoughts with me.

"He’ll definitely slot in with the existing SA boys. I think he is approaching this time with a lot more experience and a lot more wisdom in terms of what it takes out there and what he’s capable of. He can, like all of them, put too much pressure on himself which I think he may have done in the past.

"He is big mates with Justin Harding. They went to the same high school and belong to the same club back home. All of the SA boys who aren’t already on Tour took a lot of inspiration from what Daniel van Tonder and Garrick Higgo have done on the European Tour, and then Higgo and Erik van Rooyen on the PGA Tour. All of them have spoken about how it’s convinced them of where they need to be, considering these are guys they grew up in the game with and have often beaten.

"The added events in South Africa, especially the Challenge Tour events, have been a massive impetus. There is definitely a realisation amongst the younger players, having seen what some of the guys have done, that they can get out there as well, and that the Sunshine Tour offers that opportunity with its co-sanctioned events."

Harding is almost two years younger than Bekker but his path shows what can be done. For so long, he appeared destined for a solid career collecting Sunshine Tour titles (seven, the same number as Bekker), only to flourish after taking an alternative route via the Asian Tour. Bekker's opportunity came in a different form, and he makes the step up just as the Sunshine Tour signs up to stage two extra events in the spring, making it five in total in South Africa.

They will surely be key to determining how Bekker gets on.

Ewen Ferguson

  • Age: 25
  • Nationality: Scottish
  • Best Race to Dubai finish: 156th (2020)
Ewen Ferguson
Ewen Ferguson

Of all those to have earned their cards without having won, Ewen Ferguson might be the most frustrated. Three times he led through 54 holes, and on each occasion he was beaten. Ferguson also started the final round in third place in Austria, shot 65, and lost by a shot. In Cape Town, he shot 67-67 over the weekend to again miss out by one.

Still, at 25, Ferguson appears to be one of the most promising of a strong group of Scottish players, with whom he grew up playing. Robert MacIntyre was beaten in the semi-finals when Ferguson won the Scottish Boys in 2014. Connor Syme and Grant Forrest were teammates at the European Amateur, Forrest again at the Walker Cup.

When Forrest and Calum Hill won back-to-back events earlier this year, both talked about how this overdue collective of big talents were spurring each other on. It doesn't always work out - Bradley Neil finished almost 90 places below Ferguson on the Road to Mallorca and is still searching for his own path - but having so much depth to the Scottish challenge is building a cycle of success.

Ferguson won't lack for friends and practice partners and sources of inspiration this season, and nor does he lack experience. Last year, circumstances allowed him to play 19 European Tour events, and five top-30 finishes was by any measure a good return. Along the way he demonstrated high-quality ball-striking and a sharp putter, with improvements expected around the greens as he establishes himself at this higher level.

It's a big ask to win on your first try - MacIntyre couldn't manage it, and he was rookie of the year in 2019 - but Ferguson has stacks of potential, enough to believe he can stick around. Expect him to make a lot of birdies and, if there's a player among these 20 to follow blindly in the first-round leader market, it may well be the young Scot.

Yannik Paul

  • Age: 27
  • Nationality: German
  • Best Race to Dubai finish: Rookie
Yannik Paul
Yannik Paul

Yannik Paul may not be the most familiar name to golf fans, but to golf punters, it may ring a bell. Last year, while the PGA and European Tours were in hibernation, the Outlaw Tour gained notoriety by streaming golf live on twitter, and bookmakers soon cottoned on. Yannik was very much part of the story along with his brother, Jeremy, who together had already become the first twins to play in the same European Tour event together. Take that, Hojgaards.

German golf expert Daniel Fischer was kind enough to share what he knows of all four graduates, and told me that the Challenge Tour was not necessarily part of Yannik's plan.

"He went to Colorado alongside his twin brother, Jeremy," says Fischer. "A few years before that, Sebastian Heisele went to the same college. Both of the brothers moved to Arizona afterwards and are still living there. Jeremy got status on the Korn Ferry Tour a couple of weeks ago, finishing tied 11th at Q School, so it's quite a cool story: he's playing over there, and Yannik is playing on the European Tour.

"Yannik had no status on the Challenge Tour. He got some invites because of the tournament in Germany and played well the whole season, getting into the next event with a top-10 finish and so on. He played some minor tour golf in Arizona, on the Outlaw Tour, and still lives there. In fact during the Challenge Tour season he always flew back there in off-weeks. I don't know if he wants to move to Europe but as of now he's still living there.

"He hadn't really planned to play in Europe - his plan was to play in the States. It was a little bit of an opportunity which he has taken."

What we do know is that this progressive youngster stepped up a notch in 2021, having finished down the standings on what's now the Forme Tour in Canada in 2019. He was a good if not spectacular amateur, considered less promising than the likes of Max Schmitt and Hurly Long, but did win a good tournament which featured Garrick Higgo and one or two others who've gone on to achieve big things.

Ultimately, he is quite hard to get a handle on, and it may be hard to establish himself if he is travelling to and from Arizona. Then again, that's precisely what he did in a breakout 2021.

Lukas Nemecz

  • Age: 32
  • Nationality: Austria
  • Best Race to Dubai finish: 180th (2016)
Lukas Nemecz
Lukas Nemecz

Lukas Nemecz is back for his second full European Tour campaign, the first having seen him finish way down the Race to Dubai five years ago. It was a mighty effort to make it that far, the Austrian having birdied four of the final five holes to snatch the final card at Qualifying School, but he was out of his depth and failed to crack the top 20 on limited starts.

This time, graduating as a full Challenge Tour member, he will have a better opportunity to make it pay and he's also progressed in the intervening five years, gradually climbing the Road to Mallorca rankings without yet having won. He's had his chances, though, leading through 54 holes three times in 2021, which is three times more than he'd managed in the previous four years.

Most painfully of all, Nemecz held a four-shot lead heading into the final round of the Open de Provence, was still in command heading to the 13th tee, then went double-bogey, bogey. To his enormous credit, the Austrian pulled himself together and birdied the last two to enter a play-off, only for Alfie Plant to win it.

"How this guy didn’t win this season I will never know!" said Antmann. "He got himself into contention so many times. He's very quiet but a lovely man. As for his game, he's an excellent iron player and solid on the greens too, although he can be hard on himself."

Clearly, it's a big ask for a 32-year-old whose swing is solid and compact but not especially powerful, who was not a particularly renowned amateur and has seemingly struggled under pressure. But, like many of these, Nemecz has played the best golf of his career over the last 12 months and that alone is worth something.

Marcel Schneider

  • Age: 30
  • Nationality: Portuguese
  • Best Race to Dubai finish: 128th (2021)
Marcel Schneider
Marcel Schneider

Having finished second on the 2020 Road to Mallorca, Marcel Schneider had conditional European Tour status in 2021, but despite bagging a pair of top-10 finishes from limited opportunities, in June he made the decision to focus on the Challenge Tour and improve his category.

It paid off. Schneider won immediately in the Kaskada Golf Challenge, which earned him a coveted spot in the Open Championship. From there he was able to afford himself the luxury of more European Tour starts before focusing on the second tier from mid-September, again making it count with victory in Portugal, his third Challenge Tour title in little more than a hundred starts since 2013.

It seems fair to say that had Schneider played a full campaign, he'd have been higher up the list, and is one of those from whom we might expect good things in the weeks and months ahead.

"He's got a really good long-game, sometimes struggling with his short-game," says Fischer, who told me that Schneider isn't especially part of the German golfing community on the circuit. "He's pretty solid off the tee and a good iron player. These are his strengths, whereas putting and chipping can be his weakness. He's been around for eight or nine years now, been through Q School and so on, but never really established himself.

"He's still got a lot of potential."

That certainly appears true, and as a youngster he won a couple of prestigious titles including when preceding Cameron Smith to win the Australian Amateur. It's just a shame the tournaments in Austria are gone from the schedule as he's shown plenty there in the past, and does look the type of neat, tidy player who will thrive on parkland courses close to home.

Espen Kofstad

  • Age: 34
  • Nationality: Norwegian
  • Best Race to Dubai finish: 136th (2013)
Espen Kofstad
Espen Kofstad

Of the many golf anecdotes which take up the spaces in my brain where 'close the windows before you go out' should live, the 2013 Wales Open might be the most pointless. Back then, Paul McGinley hit the opening tee-shot to mark the start of qualification for the 2014 Ryder Cup, amid much fanfare. Those of us who trade in golfing cynicism can delight in the fact that as it turned out, just two subsequent Ryder Cup team members featured in that event. Both of them withdrew after round one.

But that day, nobody was going to stop people writing about McGinley, and whether his head would be turned by Joost Luiten or Alex Levy or Chris Wood or... Espen Kofstad. That's right: Norway's then-best male golfer was fortunate enough to be grouped with McGinley in the very first three-ball, producing a blistering finish to set the clubhouse target.

McGinley was impressed. Kofstad dismissed Ryder Cup talk altogether for 99% of his interview, but by the end they'd broken him. "I put in a decent application," he said. Unfortunately, he shot 74, 76, 79 over the next three days and finished in a tie for 62nd, some way behind McGinley himself.

The point of this, except to make use of a memory, is that Kofstad was once considered a very promising player, and rightly so. Graduating at the top of the 2012 Challenge Tour class having won the Grand Final, he started well in South Africa, and his future looked bright.

Then injury got in the way. Injury upon injury. Three starts in 2014, four in 2015. All he needed was health to show what he could do, which he did with another Challenge Tour win in 2016. But then the cycle repeated: three starts in 2017, three more in 2018. It has been a hellish spell, as focus among Norwegian golf fans has shifted to Viktor Hovland, while Kofstad sets his ambitions far lower: get healthy, get playing.

In many ways then, his is the best story of 2021, several promising performances at last followed by payout for all those hours in the gym or, worse, in the operating theatre. Kofstad won a play-off for the Esbjerg Challenge, defying tough conditions and a sustained attack from Ferguson.

"This one was better than the other ones," he said. "It's been really, really hard; I've been injured so much. It's crazy, I remember after wrist surgery in 2016 I took two years off, and then played 2019 without too much practice. I thought 'I'm going to have to do something, or else I'll have to quit golf'.

"Then the pandemic hit and in March last year, my girlfriend had to help me off the ground, my back hurt so bad... yeah, this one feels pretty special."

It would be fair to say we all hope he can establish himself. The idea of Ryder Cups is surely long gone, but success is relative, and if Kofstad can keep his card, he'll have achieved just as much as Hovland did when representing Europe in September.

Chase Hanna

  • Age: 27
  • Nationality: American
  • Best Race to Dubai finish: Rookie
Chase Hanna
Chase Hanna

The latest American to take this route after mixed results on the LatinoAmerica Tour and elsewhere, Chase Hanna has made the most of opportunities earned and given, especially when twice contending on the European Tour in summer. Sixth-place finishes at the Cazoo Open and then again a fortnight later in Scotland saw him impress hugely with his iron play and that aspect of his game is ready for the rise in grade.

One thing he appears to lack is consistency, missing 10 cuts all told this year, but he's made it pay when in the mix, sticking around for eight top-10s. That sort of profile is no bad thing on the European Tour, providing he can make the most of good weeks and overcome the putting issues we saw back in August, without which he might've won.

"It’s a cool way to see a lot of parts of the world, but it can also be pretty tiresome and wear you out," Hanna said of his experience on the Challenge Tour. "It’s tough. You kind of feel like a nomad at times, but it’s not an insane amount of trouble in the sense that it’s usually just a flight every week, you’re just going from place to place."

Born into a sporting family in Illinois where he was first handed a golf club at the age of three, then later educated in Kansas where he enjoyed some success as a college golfer, it's obvious what Hanna's ambition would be: a PGA Tour card. First he'll need to establish himself on the European Tour and for now, his only wins have been on minor tours, including in Florida a couple of years ago.

He spoke there (yes, I've been watching Facebook videos from the Florida Elite Golf Tour) of being comfortable in the wind and cool weather having played so often in Kansas, so maybe the fact he thrived in Scotland and Wales is a clue. For now, we're still learning (i.e. did you know he once beat actual Tom Watson in a tournament called the Watson Challenge?). So is he.

Hugo Leon

  • Age: 37
  • Nationality: Chilean
  • Best Race to Dubai finish: 116th (2019)
Hugo Leon
Hugo Leon

Now we get to a couple of players you'll hear described as 'real characters', starting with 37-year-old Hugo Leon, a well-travelled Chilean who having failed to progress past the Korn Ferry Tour, secured a Challenge Tour card for the 2018 season and then went one better at Qualifying School later that year to earn a crack at the European Tour.

With opportunities restricted by his lowly category, Leon fared particularly well, bagging four top-10 finishes in continental Europe and proving competitive whenever stepping up in class. But it wasn't quite enough: despite a tenacious effort in the Portugal Masters, he wound up finishing 116th on the Race to Dubai, with only 115 earning their cards, particularly cruel given that he ranked 39th in strokes-gained total and fifth from tee-to-green.

Leon would still have been high enough in the priority ranking to play most of the post-shutdown European Tour events last year, but travel restrictions meant he was unable to do so, only reappearing in June 2021 for a Challenge Tour campaign. Despite conceding a head start, he was quickly back in the mix and, having translated this to a strong run in European Tour events, he won at The Belfry when dropping back down a level.

His ceiling might be limited, but we know it's high enough to keep his card now he has a better category, and he'll head to the British Masters - an event in which he was 30th in 2019, when it was far stronger - as a course winner. I'm not at all surprised he's higher up Sky Bet's top Challenge Tour graduate market than his ranking and age might suggest he should be.

Marcel Siem

  • Age: 41
  • Nationality: German
  • Best Race to Dubai finish: 7th (2014)
Marcel Siem
Marcel Siem

The undoubted feel-good story of the Challenge Tour season came courtesy of Marcel Siem, who secured an emotional, hard-fought victory in France back in July. That he secured an Open spot was a mere bonus: Siem was most proud that he could win in front of his daughter.

As it happens, Siem went on to play brilliantly at Royal St George's the following week, finishing 15th, and was able to focus on the European Tour thereafter. Though he fell shy of the required number of Race to Dubai points, he was secure on the Road to Mallorca, and dropped back down to finish 15th in the Grand Final.

Siem revealed to Martin Dempster that some personal problems off the course had contributed to a dip in form prior to that, and it's difficult to know what to expect upon his return to the top level. What we do know is that it's taken some real soul-searching from this notoriously fiery competitor, who says his mental coach has allowed him to be himself and that's what has put him back on the right path.

"For sure we know his talent, what a good ball-striker he can be; this year he's improved his putting a lot," says Fischer. "When he started struggling, he said he wasn't going to play the Challenge Tour. I talked to his wife and it took a few years until he realised he just had to go one step back and regain his status, rather than relying on invites. He had to accept that and he has done this season.

"He committed to the Challenge Tour and that's the thing that has ultimately brought him back - on social media he always posted 'my way back' and he's done it. He's a lot fitter, he's got a fitness coach who is a kickboxer and has helped him for around a year. He caddied a few times too and is a good friend who has helped a lot.

"Marcel is a mentor of Freddy Schott, who has played some Challenge Tour events this year and is only 20 years old - they're really good friends and Marcel is helping him a lot. He's also friends with Nicolas Colsaerts and Pablo Larrazabal, some of the guys who are in the same age bracket."

Those two won't be alone in welcoming Siem back to the DP World Tour, where he's a four-time winner under a variety of conditions. He'll likely produce his best golf when scoring isn't straightforward and will certainly welcome the return of Le Golf National to the schedule, scene of surely his finest hour in 2012.

Niklas Norgaard Moller

  • Age: 29
  • Nationality: Danish
  • Best Race to Dubai finish: Rookie
Niklas Norgaard Moller
Niklas Norgaard Moller

The second Danish graduate, Niklas Norgaard Moller advanced thanks to a consistent campaign: 15 top-25 finishes, starting with a run of them in South Africa which perhaps bodes well for the upcoming start of the season. Just three were top-fives, but he showed clear progression from last year.

It would be fair to say Moller was seldom if ever the man to beat, only once entering the final round within two shots, but he had to show some mettle at the Grand Final where he defied a slow start to finish eighth. None of this is new: he was never the best of the Danish amateurs, far further down the rankings than Helligkilde, and arrives on the European Tour with less fanfair.

"Everyone I talk to says that he's just the nicest person they've met, and he is that," says Sigdal, adding: "I know he believes that his game is better suited for the European Tour where he can take advantage of his long game. He thinks that too many Challenge Tour courses have twists and turns and often required an iron off the tee."

That's interesting, because when we got a look at Moller in Denmark earlier this year, he ranked 16th in strokes-gained off the tee and second in distance. Himmerland, where he'd previously won on the Nordic Golf League, wouldn't be the most driver-heavy course on the circuit, but there were indications there that he may well be able to live up to his own billing.

Good driving makes good careers, and given that Sun City and Leopard Creek are both courses which demand it, the former in particular, might we see Moller upstage his compatriot and build the foundations for 2022?

However these two fare, Danish golf has arguably never been in a better place. Just why that is, Sigdal says, can be explained by a number of factors: cooperation between coaches working for the Danish Golf Union, who all want to get better; a talented group spurred on by the achievements of the Hojgaard twins; and the fact that golf is accessible.

"Golf is not a rich man's sport in Denmark," he told me. "Juniors can get in to the game at a reasonable price, so we get a lot of juniors into golf, meaning that we get a lot of potential good golfers into the game at an early stage.

"Kali (Andreas Kali, Helligkilde's coach) and a few other colleagues started Danish Junior Golf Academy about 15 years ago and they've provided an environment for the juniors to develop. Emily Pedersen was part of the first season, and Marcus has been a part of it for years. As Kali said, just two years ago Marcus helped on Fridays with the putting and chipping, giving back to the juniors. That's just Marcus. A good guy, who is generous and helpful."

Golf is a largely solo pursuit, but in Denmark, a team effort from top to bottom is reaping rewards. The standard set by Rasmus and Nicolai Hojgaard will not be easy to match, but Helligkilde and Moller have been used to chasing them. The next stage of their pursuit begins now.

Hurly Long

  • Age: 26
  • Nationality: German
  • Best Race to Dubai finish: 215th (2020)
Hurly Long
Hurly Long

Hurly Long has been on everyone's radar for a while now. I can't remember exactly when I first heard the name, but it might have been in 2017, when he shot 61 at Pebble Beach. That's the course record, and it still stands to this day.

"It’s very surreal," reflected Long two days later. "It’s taken me until now for it to kick in. Pebble Beach is just a special place. I was talking about it with my teammates — where else in the world would you want to have the course record? Maybe Augusta National? It’s a huge, huge honour."

Long went on to say that the 18th hole, where he made birdie for the record, doesn't suit his eye because he likes to hit a low cut under pressure. It's a shot formed over childhood years under the watchful eye of his father, Ted, one of the best-known golf coaches in Germany and himself having been born in the USA.

Hurly went on to study there, the highlight of his time at Texas Tech surely that day at Pebble Beach, which he backed up to win The Carmel Cup.

"He's a really good ball-striker," confirmed Fischer, who revealed Long is particularly close with long-time prospect Dominic Foos. "I followed him in the German Challenge this year, and he's solid in all parts. He's working on his mental game. He's had a plan for a few years and he's taken it step-by-step, and he's progressing every year. I think he has a bright future and really believe he could have some good results next season."

I share that view, and he could be the best option if you're looking to follow someone blind. Long will miss a lot of cuts but, quick to win a good event on the Challenge Tour in 2020, when he is in the mix he might just stick around. That will be key to keeping his card.

Andrew Wilson

  • Age: 27
  • Nationality: English
  • Best Race to Dubai finish: Rookie
Andrew Wilson
Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson arrived at the Challenge Tour Grand Final in 20th place on the Road to Mallorca, with Wilco Nienaber among those breathing down his neck. After day one, that pressure had seemingly told: he was last after an opening 75, the prospect of a rookie European Tour campaign slipping through his fingers.

Wilson recovered with a second-round 67 to get back to level par, and with a round to go was projected to finish 22nd. In other words, there was hope again, but he needed a strong finish. That didn't seem likely, however, when he double-bogeyed the 13th hole on Sunday.

Then Wilson went on a tear, finishing 3-3-3-3-4, four-under for five holes, to share 12th. That meant climbing from a projected 22nd to finishing 18th and earning DP World Tour membership for the first time. If Siem was the feel-good story of the season and Hellingkilde the breakout star, it's Wilson who produce the single most impressive burst of scoring.

"That back-nine was crazy!" he told me. "From basically tears on the golf course to complete amazement.

"In the Grand Final each player had a little device to input our scores on a hole-by-hole basis, so after every hole I could see how the guys around me were doing. I always love watching the scores and knowing what I have to do so having that available to me really helped.

"I’ve been quite awful on the greens all year as my stats reflect and I think towards the end of the round I knew I was due a few. I’d love to say it was down to patience but I felt like wrapping my club around a tree. I holed a nice one on 14 from 10 feet after a delightful double on 13, then reeled off putts from 25, 20 and 30 feet over the last three holes which is quite incredible.

"One massive thing I’ve learnt is you can get a good finish from anywhere. No matter how poorly you are playing or scoring (as long as you aren’t a trillion over par) you can always grind out a score and turn the week into a top 10. I suppose it's just having the balls to knuckle down when everything is against you because ultimately you'll be grinding out a score a lot more often than you’re flushing it."

It was a sensational effort from a 27-year-old whose career hasn't followed what you might call a normal path. Wilson studied at university in the UK where promising golfers are required to do the hard yards themselves, and find their own balance between work and the social life which comes as part of the package. He happily admits that golf didn't always top his list of priorities, but after some work and injury toil over the last 18 months before that stunning finish in Mallorca, his focus is now clear.

"We had to self-motivate to reap the rewards which I think sets you up well for whatever route you take," he said of comparisons between the UK and the fabled US college system. "I don’t feel like my game progressed at a similar rate as guys I know that went to the States. They fly out the blocks whereas myself and others have had to ease our way into the professional game which has probably set us back a year or two. But from my point of view, I think the UK system has made me more of a rounded human being, which I don’t think the American system would’ve quite offered me."

Self-motivation and hard work were attributes Wilson had to demonstrate during the first coronavirus lockdown, during which he got a job as a supermarket delivery driver, and worked shifts in his local pro shop. Now, he's able to look forward to a busy schedule, during which he hopes his soon-to-be-retired mum can come and watch him reap the rewards.

"I’d say my main strength is I don’t tend to mess up. As in, I’m really good at getting my ball in play, I’ll never miss greens by too much, so no matter how bad I’m playing I can always get it round in a score," he added. "I feel like when I get the ball rolling on the greens which is just round the corner, my game will be in really good shape which excites me a lot."

Unsurprisingly, you might say, Wilson also says he prefers par to mean something. No wonder his win on the EuroPro Tour came in 10-under, and that he was able to finish 32nd in the Open back in 2019 - a performance which, to my surprise, he says he was disappointed with.

"I prefer golf where if you shoot par you can potentially gain ground. Golf is hard enough at the best of times, never mind when you have to go out and shoot five-under just to keep your position. Then you shoot par and you’re searching Indeed looking for part-time jobs, which I’ve done more times than I’d like to admit."

How fine the margins are in professional sport. Wilson, less than two years on from delivering shopping to people in his hometown of Darlington, now heads to Johannesburg to compete for a prize fund which is close to a million pounds.

Craig Howie

  • Age: 27
  • Nationality: Scottish
  • Best Race to Dubai finish: 144th (2020)
Craig Howie
Craig Howie

Having impressed on the European Tour in 2020, finishing fourth in Austria and fifth at the Belfry, Craig Howie would've been high on many lists for top graduate. When he won the Range Servant Classic having played really well throughout the three events in South Africa, which in turn followed promise back up at the top level in Austria, he'd have been considered banker material for the top 10.

But after a poor summer came a quiet autumn, and Howie arrived at the Grand Final with a little more to do, even having played his way onto the fringes of the top 10 with a round to go. That round was a disaster which threatened to get out of hand: Howie was five-over through 13, vultures circling, but rallied with a level-par run to the clubhouse to just hang onto a place in the top 20.

The Peebles man is no stranger to struggle, having arrived on the Challenge Tour two years earlier following a dominant season on the Pro Golf Tour, things coming perhaps too easily.

"The 2019 Challenge Tour season was a complete reality check!" he told The Scotsman's Martin Dempster. "I had an injury at the start of the year and, when I came back, my game was poor. I was missing a lot of cuts and, when I did make a cut, I finished near the bottom.

"It was pretty tough to deal with and I was spending a lot more money that I was making! I think that everyone needs to go through some kind of adversity like that, though. Golf tests you in so many different ways and I think my 2019 season was simply that, a test."

Howie has just come through another and few will be as relieved as he is to be teeing it up in Joburg. One of many young Scots to have Paul Lawrie to lean on for advice, and with that group of them on the circuit together, he could soon return to the form which marked him out as a serious talent.

Daan Huizing

  • Age: 31
  • Nationality: Dutch
  • Best Race to Dubai finish: 136th (2014)
Daan Huizing
Daan Huizing

There was a real buzz around Daan Huizing when he first graduated to the European Tour in 2013, and rightly so. Here we had a youngster with victories in the Lytham and St Andrews trophies to his name along with others from Argentina to Turkey. Then he turned professional and, in a three-week spell, won twice on the Challenge Tour. Everything was plain sailing.

Unfortunately, he's since struggled to complete the step up. Huizing was a respectable 136th on the Race to Dubai on his first go, but it wasn't enough to keep meaningful status. Tellingly, upon returning to the Challenge Tour he finished fifth in his first event, and he's since been close to promotion again while never under threat of losing his rights at the second tier. He looks the sort of player who would always be competitive on the Road to Mallorca but ultimately gains little from earning a step up in grade.

"I don’t think any other player on the Challenge Tour will mind me saying that Daan is the hardest working player out there," said Antmann. "He's one of the first on the range in the morning and the last one in at night. He’s not going to blow a course away with a 61 or a 62 but he’s very steady. I wouldn’t say he’s got one exceptional aspect to his game, he’s just solid."

It's hard to know where he'll find improvement from, though Huizing recently got engaged and a settled family life has often provided the foundations for a flourishing professional career. The one thing in his favour is that he can grind and is more comfortable than most of these in the wind, which puts events like the Made in Denmark and his home Dutch Open on the radar.

Huizing underlined his links credentials with a victory at Portmarnock earlier this year and it's not unreasonable to suggest that more events in the UK, plus those established in Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, might help him to bridge the gap. One to have on-side when the going gets tough, but it could be a bit of a slog otherwise.


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