It had been more than two years since the Challenge Tour, the European Tour’s excellent breeding ground, had witnessed a tartan triumph, Duncan Stewart having been the last player to achieve that feat as he used victory in the Challenge de Madrid to earn a step up to the main circuit.
That Liam Johnston was the player to end that particular title drought might have come as a surprise to some – his Andalucia - Costa del Sol Match Play 9 triumph came, after all, in only his third event on the circuit – but not to people who have followed the Dumfries man’s career.
Apart from one blip early on, when he threw away a big lead in the 2011 Scottish Boys Championship at Dunbar, Johnston has proved to be a winner, something, sadly, that too many upcoming players choose to overlook when turning professional and thinking sucess might follow in the paid ranks.
In the last 14 months alone, he has landed two notable amateur successes – the African Amateur and Scottish Stroke-Play – as well as winning in Morocco in the third-tier Pro Golf Tour, having earned his card for that circuit by finishing first in the Qualifying School in Germany. On his pro debut last October, Johnston also made the cut in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship on the European Tour and now, having secured starts for the rest of the Challenge Tour season, the 25-year-old will be aiming to be teeing up on that circuit as a card holder, too, next year.
Johnston’s joy at Valle Romano in Estepona may have brought disappointment ultimately for Grant Forrest, the player he beat in the final in an event that mixed both stroke-play and match-play. But that first Challenge Tour title just looks to be around the corner for the North Berwick man. He was also a winner as an amateur, held off turning pro as his form dipped a bit after playing in the 2015 Walker Cup and, as a result of making that move at the right time, is now going from strength to strength.
Add in Ewen Ferguson having mustered two top-ten finishes recently, it has been a promising spell for Scots on the Challenge Tour, where the role being played by Bounce Sport, an Edinburgh-based management company, in securing opportunities for players flying the St Andrews Cross cannot be under-estimated. This week, for instance, they have secured a first Challenge Tour start for Craig Howie, who has been doing well on the Pro Golf Tour in his rookie season, in the Czech Republic.
Team SSE Scottish Hydro, of which Forrest, Ferguson and Bob MacIntyre are all members this year, is also playing a part in helping create a solid platform for young professionals, as is equally valuable continued support from Aberdeen Standard Investments, and you just wonder where someone like Paul O’Hara would be now if he had benefited in such a way after turning pro around eight years ago. The man who recorded that other Scottish success, winning the Motocaddy Masters at Frilford Heath on the PGA EuroPro Tour on Friday, O’Hara had to give up on his dream of making it to the European Tour after running out of money early in his professional career and, at 31, perhaps doesn’t have that desire to try again. Time and time again, though, over the past few years, mainly in PGA events and now on one of Europe’s third-tier circuits, the Motherwell man has shown he definitely has the game to be competing at a higher level.
He will be doing just that this week, having secured a spot in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth along with fellow Tartan Tour player Gavin Hay, and giving a good account of himself in the Rolex Series event might just prove to O’Hara that he should be going all out again to get on the European Tour. It is now more than three years, incidentally, since Richie Ramsay, with his Hassan Trophy triumph in Morocco, delivered the last Scottish success in a regular event on that circuit and where better than the Tour’s HQ for that title drought to be brought to an end.
That would really be something to shout about.