Grant Forrest is aiming to overcome the shock of arriving in Aviemore this week to see himself plastered on giant billboard as he tries to win the event that Brooks Koepka used as a springboard to becoming a back-to-back US Open champion.
Forrest, who turned 25 on Tuesday, spearheads a strong home contingent in the £220,000 SSE Scottish Hydro Challenge at Macdonald Spey Valley, where Koepka recorded his third Challenge Tour triumph in quick succession in 2013 to secure an automatic step up to the European Tour.
“The poster coming into the town is a bit scary,” admitted Forrest of him being the focal point of a billboard promoting the event at the south end of the town.
“Who’s that ugly fella?” he added, laughing, when asked what his first reaction had been to seeing it. “I saw a couple of wee promotional flyers, but I didn’t know something that size was going up. It’s nice, though, to see it. It’s pretty cool.”
Forrest’s poster boy status this week has been earned on the back of a strong start to the season on the second-tier circuit. Needing to finish the season in the top 15 to secure a main Tour card, he’s sitting seventh in the Road to Ras Al Khaimah rankings after two runner-up finishes, both after play-offs. The first saw him pipped by compatriot Liam Johnston in Spain last month while Welshman Stuart Manley denied him in a shoot-out in France last Sunday.
“I’ve been playing nicely and it’s good to come to an event like this with a bit of form,” said the Craigielaw player, who is hoping to take up where he left off on the Dave Thomas-designed course after holing a 50-foot birdie putt on the last a year ago as he closed with a 65 to finish joint-21st behind Englishman Richard McEvoy.
“It’s been a long stretch of golf. This is my tenth event in the last 11 weeks. I’m feeling a bit tired now, but I’m looking forward to this. I played well in this last year, but just didn’t putt well, until the last round when I got a few going in. If you drive it well, there is a good score out there. And obviously the weather is a factor, as always.”
In some of the worst conditions for this event, Koepka vindicated why fellow players, caddies and officials were all raving about him as the American posted an 18-under-par total to win here. He then drove overnight to Sunningdale to win a qualifier for the Open Championship and the rest has been history.
“Brooks winning here does open your eyes but, if you look at any of the guys who have kicked on from the Challenge Tour, you can take a lot of confidence,” admitted Forrest, referring to the likes of Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnston, who also claimed this prize in 2014.
“If you can win out here, you know you can succeed at the next level. This event has had some really good champions and that says a lot about the golf course itself. It’s a proper test. It’s one of the fairest of the courses we play on the Tour.
“You look at the scoring and it’s always pretty low. It surprises people and it surprised me the first couple of times I played it. But the more you play it, you realise that if you’re good off the tee you will get chances.
“It doesn’t play too long and you have a lot of wedges into the greens which gives you chances. Some of the other courses we play can be just more of a putting competition. Here, if you are offline, you are in the heather hacking about and getting penalised.”
Jamie McLeary won the event’s first staging at the Highlands venue in 2009 before George Murray was also victorious in the shadow of the Cairngorms 12 months later and now Forrest is hoping to mark its tenth anniversary here by claiming another tartan triumph.
“I’ve had two second-place finishes, but you don’t get too down about losing out,” he insisted. “Any time you have a chance to win out here, you know you are doing something right. That’s the way you have to look at it. I had a couple of putts on the 18th last week that just didn’t want to go in. But that’s golf. It’s about kicking on, doing the right things and staying confident that it will happen.”
Johnston is also heading into the event with a spring in his step, having made the most of an invitation to win the Andalucia - Costa del Sol Match Play 9 in just his third Challenge Tour start. He’s sitting 15th in the Road to Ras Al Khaimah rankings in his rookie season in the paid ranks.
“I have already achieved my initial goals for the season as far as the Challenge Tour is concerned - a top 10 and securing a card for next season - so the pressure is off in that respect,” said the 25-year-old from Dumfries. “But I’ve set new goals, so I am still trying to put a little bit pressure on myself to achieve those goals, the main one being to finish in the top 15 at the end of the season.”
Two more wins between now and then would see him make that step up to the European Tour straight away, as Koepka did five years ago. “Hopefully I can try and follow in his footsteps by also winning here this week,” added Johnston.
“I actually checked up his 2013 Challenge Tour results last night and it is cool to see former Challenge Tour winners like Brooks and also Tommy Fleetwood, who came second in an event, have moved on to bigger and better things.”
A 20-strong Scottish contingent also includes Ewen Ferguson, who is out to make up for lost time in this event after being forced to withdrew on the eve of the first round the past two years due to untimely injuries.
“The first year here I broke my hand then last year I fell out of the shower and smashed my rib off the sink,” said the 21-year-old from Bearsden. “I actually played the practice round both times and then had to pull out while I was here.”
Ferguson, the 2013 British Boys’ champion, has recorded three top-10 finishes on the Challenge Tour this year to sit 26th in the rankings and added: “I just want to roll on with the way the season has been going, really. I have been playing nicely and doing everything well, I feel like I’ve got my own little routine.
“If I can just do the same stuff again, even though it’s at home, hopefully I can keep holing putts and hitting fairways and stay at that top end of the leaderboard to try and make a big weekend.”
Top first-round tee times
7.30am David Law, Tom Murray, Toby Tree
8.20am Grant Forrest, Pedro Figueiredo, Minkyu Kim
8.30am Ewen Ferguson, Stuart Manley, Sean Crocker
8.40am Duncan Stewart, Oliver Wilson, David Dixon
12.50pm Max Orrin, Chris Doak, Paul Howard
1pm Robert Dinwiddie, Jack Senior, Richard Wallis
1.10pm Liam Johnston, Alfie Plant, Michael Hoey
1.20pm Johan Carlsson, Jaxck Doherty, Kim Koivu