John Huggan: Much to gain in Spain for Raymond Russell

Raymond Russell
Raymond Russell
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He missed a return to the top flight by just a shot but Scot Raymond Russell has another chance to escape the Challenge Tour’s carry-your-own-bag graft

IT WAS six-times major champion Lee Trevino who once said: “Real pressure in golf is playing for $10 when you have $5 in your pocket.” Which is fair enough, but the “Merry Mex” clearly never plied his trade on the Challenge Tour. A combination of “expensive” and “not-so-lucrative” makes European golf’s second division a place no one wants to be longer than absolutely necessary.

Nothing much on the Challenge Tour compares favourably with the European Tour. The courses are generally not as good. The practice facilities are nearly always inferior – only occasionally are competitors able to hit drivers on the range. And those players, inevitably, do not enjoy the level of pampering seen on the “big” tour – caddies, free meals and courtesy cars are rare treats indeed.

Still, as one Tiger Woods might say: “It is what it is”.

“For all its faults, I still see the Challenge Tour as an opportunity,” contends Scotland’s Raymond Russell, two weeks after finishing one shot, one place and an agonising ¤160 short of promotion to the European Tour. “No, there’s not a lot of money to be made after expenses. But it’s a stepping stone to something better. Having said that, I can’t keep playing the Challenge tour for much longer. Travelling to places like Colombia and India is not cheap. Even getting to the final event in Italy involved two flights. That adds up.”

All is not quite lost for Russell, of course. At the end of this month, he will join 155 other hopefuls at the final stage of the European Tour’s six-round qualifying school in Spain, where they will compete for the 25 cards on offer. It’s a high-stress week, to be sure, but one the 40-year-old veteran is ready for.

“I’m going to Turkey later this month to play in a pro-am event, then, after a couple of days at home, it is straight to the tour school,” says the 1996 Cannes Open champion. “I know this sounds odd, but I’m not that down about having to go there.

“I played the back nine in the last round of the Challenge Tour Grand Final in four under par. That showed me something. I put myself in a position where I had to play well – and I did. The disappointing aspect is that I was 11 under par standing on the 14th tee in the third round and I finished 11 under. Level par for the last 22 holes just isn’t good enough. So I’m looking forward to the tour school. I’ll go there playing well, which is a big thing.”

Of course, logic tells us that Russell, for all his optimism, has not been playing well enough during 2012. Still, after spending more than a year out of the game because of a mystery virus that laid him low – he picked up a club again only in August 2011 – he is perhaps entitled to take a little time getting back to full fitness and form. Which is not to say he is happy with his present position.

“‘Frustrated’ is probably the best description of my feelings right now,” he says. “Given the position I was in after winning in June [at the Challenge Provincia di Varese], I should have my card right now. So there is some disappointment. I should have kicked on from there. My weekend play since then has been poor. My average score over the second 36 holes of my last 12 events [71.14] is considerably higher than it is over the first two rounds [69.54].

“There was a pattern to that all season. It wasn’t just happening once or twice. So there must be a reason for it. Maybe I was just getting tired. It is only just over a year since my illness, so maybe that was a factor, I’m not sure. I did try different things. I would walk courses in practice rather than playing. I cut down on the number of balls I was hitting at events. And, looking back at the week where I won, I didn’t hit even one ball after each round. So maybe the answer is simple – get fitter.”

Golf is rarely that straightforward, however. Even for those who do gain tour cards through finishing among the top 20 money-winners on the Challenge circuit, life over the next 12 months is far from easy. Take Russell’s fellow Scot Craig Lee, who was 14th on the Challenge Tour at the end of 2011.

With five events still to play, Lee sits a precarious 113th in the “Race to Dubai” (the top 115 are exempt into next year). So he has a chance of making it. But that chance did not come from his performances during 2011. Rather, Lee’s steady play in the first four months of this year is the key to his opportunity. When the European Tour’s first of two “re-ranks” of Challenge Tour and school qualifiers took place at the end of April, three top-20 finishes from six starts catapulted the Stirling man up the all-important exemption list. And that, far more than his now all-but-forgotten Challenge Tour play, has allowed to him to tee-up in as many as 22 events so far this season.

Equally important for another of Russell’s countrymen, Scott Henry, is the fact that the top ten money winners on the Challenge Tour do not take part in the re-ranking process. The former Scottish Stroke Play champion from Clydebank was actually 11th in earnings this year but Swede Magnus Carlsson’s top-115 finish on the main tour supercedes his sixth place on the Challenge Tour. So Henry moves up one crucial spot, his position amongst the exempt protected for the whole of 2013.

Still, for those down the order, a fast start to the season is vital and set to become even more so. With the recent disappearance of so many European Tour events, natural breaks have appeared in the schedule, thereby reducing playing opportunities for all. But, with the higher-ranked now playing more of the available events, the earning potential of those lower down the order is even further depleted. Also exacerbating that situation is the recent vote of the European Tour’s Tournament Committee to maintain the all-exempt number at 115. Turkeys, as they say, don’t vote for Christmas.

Anyway, none of the above is of immediate concern to Russell, one of golf’s more pragmatic souls.

“The big difference between my game now and my game when I was on the European Tour is on the greens,” he says. “I just don’t putt as well as I used to. Or maybe I don’t hit it as close. I look at it this way – maybe two or three things in my game are not up to tour standard. So I need to improve. If my level of performance gets better, everything else takes care of itself.

“I’ll go to the tour school trying to win the thing. If you go there looking to get the last card and don’t quite perform, you come away with nothing. Looking to win builds in some margin for error.”

Join me in wishing him well. After all he has been through physically, a European Tour card would be just reward for a typically gutsy display of persistence in the face of adversity.