UP FOR a Challenge? Branden Grace, Jamie Donaldson, Matteo Manassero, Alex Noren, Mikko Ilonen, Alvaro Quiros, Joost Luiten, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Byeong-hun An and Brooks Koepka certainly were.
All those players listed used the SSE Scottish Hydro Challenge, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this week, as a stepping stone to a combination of European Tour, PGA Tour and Ryder Cup glory.
One of the purposes of the event has been to give Scotland a seat at the tableIain Stoddart
In addition to Gleneagles’ match-winner Donaldson, the event’s collective cast list over the past nine years also includes two more Ryder Cup players in Edoardo Molinari and Nicolas Colsaerts. Add in the likes of James Morrison, Bernd Wiesberger, Thorbjorn Olesen, Tommy Fleetwood and Peter Uihlein all having played in it as well and you’ll see the part this tournament plays in shaping careers.
Take Koepka, for example. His win two years ago was really the catalyst for the American to now be sitting inside the world’s top 25 after recording victories on both the European Tour and PGA Tour inside the last eight months.
And what about An? Less than a year after a third Scottish Challenge appearance, the 23-year-old South Korean made the golfing world sit up and take notice as he produced a record-breaking performance to win the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.
“I didn’t realise Noren [who claimed his fourth European Tour title with victory in the recent Nordea Masters] and Grace [who came tantalisingly close to winning the US Open on Sunday] had both played in it, but it doesn’t surprise me because it’s in events like the Scottish Challenge where players develop and the good ones then come to the top,” said Iain Stoddart.
A founding partner of Edinburgh-based Bounce Sports, the event’s promoters, he has been involved from the start, a journey which began at Murcar Links, then went south for a two-year stint at Macdonald Cardrona near Peebles before arriving at Macdonald Spey Valley in Aviemore, its home since 2009.
“Ten years. Can you believe it?” added Stoddart. “The first event at Murcar was on the back of the Seniors’ Open having just been played at Royal Aberdeen. A lot of the sponsors from that got behind the Scottish Challenge and helped it get off the ground. While it then went to Cardrona for a couple of years, the plan was always to take it to Spey Valley as that is the jewel in the crown of the Macdonald Hotels & Resorts’ golfing portfolio. It ticks boxes being in the heart of the SSE Scottish Hydro marketplace and them, Macdonald and the Scottish Government have all been brilliant as it’s long-term deals they’ve been involved in with this event.”
Its future has been guaranteed for at least the next four years, meaning up-and-coming Scottish players can continue to not only get an opportunity to compete on home soil in one of the second-tier circuit’s biggest events but also get a fair share of invitations for other tournaments through reciprocal agreements. “One of the purposes of this event has been to give Scotland a seat at the table,” revealed Stoddart, the man who came up with the blueprint for the successful Team Scottish Hydro initiative. “If we didn’t have a Scottish Challenge, our guys wouldn’t get the same opportunities as those in other countries.
“The fact they do means that you could argue that there are no excuses left for Scottish players now. Anybody coming through can’t complain about not getting supported, whether that is through SSE Scottish Hydro or Aberdeen Asset Management. The support is there.”
Scott Jamieson, Craig Lee and Chris Doak all used the Scottish Challenge to help earn European Tour cards. Jamie McLeary, the 2009 winner, is bidding to follow up his recent win in Belgium by claiming the title again on Sunday to secure a place back alongside them next season.
“The Challenge Tour is a proven development ground and it was huge for the Scottish Challenge when Matteo Manassero came to Spey Valley in 2010 [the year Fifer George Murray came out on top],” said Stoddart. “He hadn’t played much on the circuit before that yet he identified Scotland as being somewhere he wanted to play as part of his development. For me, it’s a toss up between him and Brooks Koepka for what has been the most significant story so far in the event. Most people would probably say Brooks because of what he’s done since then, but Manassero playing was massive, too. I remember coming away from that event being impressed by him – his manners, the way he carried himself in addition to his golf – and he hadn’t really got going in his professional career at that stage.”
Will the “Class of 2015” include a superstar in waiting? One of 30 Scots – a combination of Challenge Tour regulars, Tartan Tour players and amateurs – Blairgowrie’s Bradley Neil will certainly be hoping to get his professional career off to a flying start, but watch out for the likes of Ricardo Gouvela, Haydn Porteous and Max Orrin.
Gouvela, a 23 year old from Portugal, won on his seventh professional start; 19-year-old Porteous backed up a strong amateur career by claiming victory in Kenya at the start of this season; and Englishman Orrin has already won twice on the Challenge Tour at the age of 20.