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Across the Pond

Meet the Graduates

by Matt Cooper
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

There are two formal routes on to (or back to) the European Tour: the year long second tier Challenge Tour and the year-end scrap at Q School.
As ever, this year has seen many new faces and some familiar ones make the move to the 2017 European Tour. 
For the lucky few progress to the top of the game is a neat stairway. But they really are a lucky few. For most getting to the top is a series of forward, backward and sideways steps.
Here's a background check on 20 of the standout graduates. Who will be feeling the pressure? Who might be worth a pick? Who to avoid? Who to keep an eye on?
Jordan Smith
A member of the defeated GB&I team in the 2013 Walker Cup, Smith went 0-2, ending his week with a 6&5 trouncing at the hands of a fellow Jordan (Niebrugge). After turning pro he failed to find the fast route to the top table, but has negotiated the minor tours without too many problems, winning twice in 2015 on the third tier EuroPro Tour to graduate to the Challenge Tour where another two wins saw him top the rankings at the first time of asking. Six of the last ten winners of the Challenge Tour money list retained his card.
Bernd Ritthammer
Well liked by Tour staff, there was, however, little to suggest after five full years on the Challenge Tour the 29-year-old German would have such a spectacular 2016. He thrice finished top 40 in the rankings, but never better than 20th as he made a total of five top three finishes in exactly 100 starts. But in 2016 he claimed three wins (including the Grand Final), added another two top threes, to finish second in the rankings. A big task ahead though: he’s just 14-for-45 at European Tour level. The better news is that his six top 20s on that stage have all come in his last 20 starts.
Ryan Fox
Another late bloomer, the 29-year-old Kiwi has no fears of his genes letting him down at world class sporting level: he’s the grandson of an international cricketer and son of a legendary rugby player. He took his time turning pro, with some suggestions that he was initially wary of taking on the family tradition, but since making the move with conviction he’s impressed. He first ventured to Europe in 2015, finishing 16th on the Challenge Tour to miss out on a European Tour card by one spot, but made no mistake in 2016, with eight top tens including a second win at that level. Moreover he rode the wave late in the season to peg an impressive T4 in the Australian Open and open his 2017 season account with T9 in the Australian PGA Championship.
Sam Walker
The 2016 season was a big one for 38-year-old Englishman. After the second of his victories – the Kazakhstan Open – he revealed that if he hadn’t won promotion to the main circuit his touring career was over. He made his debut on the second tier in 2001 and this year is just the second he has advanced. Thanks to Q School he has had a total of four years on the main tour, with another four efforts hampered by a limited category (and therefore only 9 to 14 starts). But only once, back in 2007, did he retain the card. Can he ride the wave of success this year? He’ll need something special. Nine top ten finishes (but not once top three) in 193 starts means the averages are not in his favour. The threat of career conclusion will presumably hang over him again this year; perhaps it might motivate another last hurrah? Nothing wrong with a slow-maturing wine.
Alexander Bjork
The 26-year-old Swede made his way through the Nordic League before a couple of seasons on the Challenge Tour, none of which shouted his name as a star of the 2016 season and two missed cuts to start didn’t add to the feeling. Then an opening 62 in the Montecchia Open gave him the early lead, he held on for T4 and went on to add another eight top ten finishes, one of them a win in the Le Vaudreuill Challenge. A big task for him to hold on to a card at the first time of asking however.
Dylan Frittelli
The 26-year-old South African claimed the Rolex Trophy in August, an event with the longest history on the Challenge Tour and quite some legacy – amongst the last 12 winners are the likes of Alex Noren, Marc Warren,  Julien Quesne, Benjamin Hebert, Kristoffer Broberg, Ben An and Nacho Elvira. More often than not, in other words, it’s an event that produces solid main tour performers. Back in 2013 he created some buzz only to then suffer two miserable seasons in which weekend golf was often a success. Back on track now.
Romain Langasque
For the next two years there will be added focus on French golfers, as they chase the glory of a place on the European Ryder Cup team which will compete in Paris. On his best form Victor Dubuisson has the greatest chance, but on potential plenty believe Langasque has it in him. The question will be if the match comes too soon for him. The 2016 season was fascinating. As the 2015 US Amateur champion he had a spot at Augusta National wrapped up so remained outside the pro ranks until mid April, but not before becoming the first amateur golfer to complete nine holes of the Masters in 29 shots. Thereafter he committed to the Challenge Tour instead of accepting invites to the main stage, wary of splitting his attention and tripping up. The good news was that he very soon had the card wrapped up, helped by eight top tens. The bad news was he never gained a win and seemed to lose focus towards the end of the campaign, perhaps with his eye on bigger fish to fry. Late season he impressed alongside Dubuisson in the World Cup, notching a French team historical best of T2. A partnership for Paris 2018 maybe? A long way off but he’s ambitious.
Jose-Filipe Lima
This year he graduated from the Challenge Tour for a third time (he’s twice finished second in the rankings) and yet it’s a long time (nine years in fact) since he played four consecutive seasons on the European Tour. Seven of his 19 top 15 finishes on the European Tour have come in the Challenge Tour co-sanctioned events at St Omer and Madeira. Ominously neither remain on the main tour schedule.
Thomas Detry
Turned pro off plus six at the start of 2016 and hit the Challenge Tour running, going 14-for-14, thrashing a 60 on his way to victory in the Bridgestone Challenge, earning a main tour card and opening his account with T3 in the Alfred Dunhill Championship. It’s as simple as that. The 23-year-old is a good friend of Thomas Pieters and will form an exciting three-pronged Belgian attack on the main stage in 2017 with Nicolas Colsaerts. You sense they may have a lot of fun.
Joel Stalter
So highly thought of when he turned pro, having claimed five titles at the University of California, that Nike handed him a big money contract. However the wine and stock market aficionado could make little headway on the 2014 and 2015 Challenge Tour. In fact the trend continued in early 2016 before victory in the Swedish Challenge sprung him up the rankings. Opened Grand Final with 72-78 to put his main tour card under threat, but closing with 66-68 allowed him to sneak in at 16th (in a quirk of the rules, 16 cards, rather than 15, were handed out due to Romain Langasque playing the early season as an amateur).

Nathan Kimsey
Completes a coincidental double for the 2013 GB&I Walker Cup team – Jordan Smith won the Challenge Tour, team-mate claimed Kimsey Q School. The latter was right out of leftfield however, after a year in which he went 4-for-11 on the third tier EuroPro cicuit, never finishing better than T34. No arguments with the accomplished way he earned top card at PGA Catalunya (70-70-71-61-73-70) but if he cannot maintain that pace, a return to the EuroPro mean would make for a very tough rookie campaign. Opened the season 69-69-76-76 at the Alfred Dunhill Championship which might hint, that like his year, he can go low, but can also shoot high.
Ricardo Gonzalez
At 47 the oldest-ever graduate from Q School, but a mightily popular one and he did it in thrilling style. On the bubble heading into the final round he thrashed an 8-under-par 64 to finish the week T2. Spent 18 consecutive years on Tour up to 2015 but recent times have been a struggle, often requiring a return to Q School. Still a big-hitter it’s always been said you should play him when the track is wide, but beware: his wins have come at Barseback, Sevilla, Club de Campo Madrid, Crans and, on the Challenge Tour, Muthaiga in Kenya – all of them tree-lined tracks. Perhaps testimony to being brought up – and always excelling on – tight layouts in Argentina?
Ashley Chesters
The Englishman who hails from the same club as Sandy Lyle took his time turning pro, partly a consequence of winning two European Amateur titles. Both won him spots in the Open Championship and, although torn, he took up the second invite because it was an Open at the home of golf – St Andrews. Good choice: he finished T12. But he failed to collect a strong card when turning pro later in 2015, injury took a toll and he’s never been the fondest of travelers. A debut Challenge Tour without a top ten didn’t cut the mustard so it was back to Q School where he finally showed his class to finish T16. 
Richard McEvoy
The quiet man of a small hotbed of golf in England, in the county of Essex, east of London. In addition to McEvoy, Simon Khan, Oliver Fisher, Daniel Brooks and Matthew Southgate all hail from there. The 37-year-old did the most of any of them at amateur level, claiming the Lytham Trophy and winning the Walker Cup alongside Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell (amongst others). A few years ago he talked in local press of looking beyond tour golf, after some struggles. He’s still not fully cracked it (nine full years on the main tour are yet to reap a finish inside the top 100), but he refuses to go away and might be the type to pull off a Richard Bland-style year with a bit of confidence.
Espen Kofstad
A double bogey on the sixth hole of his final round at PGA Catalunya appeared to have wrecked his hopes of a card, but he refused to drop another shot, and added three birdies, including one on the final and 108th hole of the week. And yet it still wasn’t enough: he needed McEvoy to not make birdie on the last. Fortunately for the Norwegian that is exactly what happened. Injury has twice stopped his career in its tracks so he's keen to make up for lost time. A three-time winner at Challenge Tour level he came to the game in a novel way – taking a 15-minute boat trip from his family’s summer home in Norway to a course in Sweden.
Eddie Pepperell
The highest profile figure at Q School due to the excruciating nature of his return there (shooting 64-76 to miss the cut in the year-ending Portugal Masters) and his popular nature (as a wry Tweeter and blogger). He’d enjoyed three solid years on the main stage prior to finishing 113th in 2016. Two traits have emerged in that period. The first is that he really thrives in England – at Wentworth, Woburn and The Grove he’s performed well, cheered on by the Pepper Army. Less fun, he’s struggled when hitting the top: he was T1 after 54 holes of the 2014 Nordea Masters (finished T6), he led the 2016 King’s Cup on the back nine Sunday (finished T6) and even very briefly led the 2015 Open Championship in the third round, as he left the 16th green, whereupon he sliced his drive at the 17th into the Old Course Hotel.
Jaco Ahlers
The big South African – he’s 6’0” and 244 lbs – has become a sturdy presence on the Sunshine Tour, collecting six wins and finishing top 20 in the rankings in each of the last five seasons, but he’s yet to transfer the results to the co-sanctioned European Tour events and now he has won the chance to have a crack at the full season. He’s 24-for-46 with only three top tens so needs to find another gear. 
Rafa Echenique
Back in 2009 the Argentinian holed his second shot at the par-five 18th hole of the BMW International Open for a final round, final hole double-eagle, a 10-under-par 62 and an outside chance at having set a target the leader Nick Dougherty could not match. Alas he bettered it but Echenique found himself tied for the 54-hole lead a week later in the Open de France. A strong finish was denied him (he made 77, ended the week T13) and apart from a T2 in the following year’s Scandinavian Masters he didn’t make another European Tour top ten. He lost his card in 2011, returned to the Challenge Tour, tried the Web.com, then the LatinoAmerica, and is now back on the European Tour, a final round 6-under 66 confirming his card. At his best a fine player, but 13 instances of being top three after 54 holes have reaped just two wins (on the Challenge and LatinoAmerica Tours way back in 2006). 
Edoardo Molinari
As the Ryder Cup song went, there really are two Molinaris: consistent Francesco and boom or bust Edoardo. It is 12 unbroken years on Tour for the former now, but the latter … won a card at Q School for the 2008 season, lost it, turned things round with a stellar year on the Challenge Tour, won twice on the main tour in 2010, played the Ryder Cup, followed it with four solid seasons, then … since finishing T4 in the Wales Open in late 2014 it’s been little short of disastrous: 54 starts and just four top 20 finishes. The good news? The best finish in that dismal run came on his last start, T14 at the Hong Kong Open. He’s bounced back before, can he do so again?
Tom Lewis
A riddle inside an enigma. Lost a play-off as an amateur on debut in the pro ranks on the Australiasian Tour in 2010; led the Open in 2011 after a round one 65; won the 2011 Portugal Masters, just his third start as a pro; once made two 64s and a 65 at the Dunhill Links Championship but added a Saturday 73 to finish third; looked bound for a 59 at the 2016 Made in Denmark before carding 62 and ending the week T26. And yet: never finished higher than 94th in the rankings in his last five attempts. He looks superb at his best and like a malfunctioning robot at his worst. Turns 26 early in 2017 so plenty of time on his side. Needs to find a putter he is friends with.