Martin Dempster: Challenge Tour a test of mettle

THERE is no event which provides more food for thought, at least for me anyway, than the SSE Scottish Hydro Challenge. Its tenth anniversary staging at Macdonald Spey Valley in Aviemore last week was no exception.

Ross Kellett made a good impression with his performance in Aviemore. Picture: Mark Runnacles/Getty
Ross Kellett made a good impression with his performance in Aviemore. Picture: Mark Runnacles/Getty

For starters, it’s a week when you are reminded that no-one (okay, perhaps a few) can take their European Tour cards for granted because every year you come across players you are surprised, partially anyway, to see in the Highlands.

The likes of Gary Boyd, Joel Sjoholm, Rhys Davies, Tano Goya and Peter Whiteford, for example. They’ve all had seats at European Tour’s top table and not just for one or two seasons.

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A year ago, Bradley Dredge was in the field before he turned his career around with two runner-up finishes back-to-back on the main circuit. In 2011, we saw Marc Warren on Speyside after he’d also slipped off the main circuit, albeit briefly.

In short, the Challenge Tour is tougher – much tougher – than a lot of people realise, hence why Scotland can only expect a drip feed of players on to the European Tour rather than a flood in the foreseeable future. That might not be what we want to hear, but it’s true.

Just short of the halfway point of the second circuit’s season, we’ve got two players – Andrew McArthur and Jamie McLeary – sitting in the top 15 on the money-list, meaning they are on course to earn a step up to the main circuit in 2016. Both are experienced enough to achieve that goal, though, at the same time, will know that a tough slog lies ahead.

The fact that McArthur is 36 and McLeary two years younger is clearly an indication that, right now, Scotland is really struggling to get players in their 20s off the business end of the talent conveyor belt and that, quite frankly, is worrying.

David Law, for instance, is still finding his feet on the Challenge Tour, although I’m fairly confident he has both the game and temperament to reach the promised land of the European Tour in the next few years.

The same applies to Ross Kellett, who ended up as the leading home player in Aviemore, finishing joint 13th behind English winner Jack Senior. Kellett played his amateur golf in the shadow of the likes of James Byrne and Michael Stewart, yet is now ahead of them as far as his progression in the paid ranks is concerned.

The Motherwell man has a terrific attitude, having never once uttered even the hint of a moan in the time I’ve known him, and is as good an example to the up-and-coming young amateurs as any Scottish player on the pro circuits.

He has worked hard and suffered knocks along the way. But he’s improving all the time and that’s what this game is all about, especially for someone, like him, in their mid-20s.

It’s exactly the same for the likes of Grant Forrest, Jack McDonald and Bradley Neil, and there was a certain irony, of course, about what happened to them at Spey Valley.

Still in the amateur ranks, Forrest and McDonald both gave good accounts of themselves by making the cut. That was even more praiseworthy considering both had felt a touch drained after good runs in the Amateur Championship at Carnoustie the previous week. That shows how much confidence plays in performances and, unfortunately, Neil has made his switch to the paid ranks at a time when the Blairgowrie teenager is struggling in that department.

At least an early exit from the Scottish Challenge will have given him some time to spend a few days at home and re-focus for starts in both the French Open and Scottish Open over the next two weeks.

From a 30-strong Scottish starting contingent last week, only seven made it to the weekend, the others in addition to those mentioned already being Neil Henderson, who was making his Challenge Tour debut, and Elliot Saltman. Early exits for the likes of Whiteford, McLeary and George Murray was particularly disappointing, especially as the latter two were both former winners at the same venue.

But, and we should really know this already, it’s getting tougher and tougher each year to simply make headway on this circuit far less be a standout. In short, the bar is being raised all the time and, as a nation, we need to be upping our game in order to ensure that we continue to see new talent on the European Tour.