OF ALL the tournaments I’ve covered so far this year, the Scottish Hydro Challenge at Macdonald Spey Valley has undoubtedly been the one that has provided the most food for thought.
For starters, it was a perfect illustration of the incredible strength in depth in European golf at the moment, the field for the £220,000 event containing a host of players who are used to competing for much bigger pots of money yet have found themselves needing to take a step back in their careers in a bid to move forward again.
Take Nick Dougherty, for example. It seems like yesterday when he was winning the Dunhill Links at St Andrews, but that happened in 2007 and, almost five years on, the Liverpudlian is languishing 914th in the world rankings.
He could be feeling sorry for himself. You might even expect he’d have a massive chip on his shoulder. Spend a few minutes in his company, though, and you’d hear a refreshing view if you were of the opinion that all sportsmen are money-grabbing so and sos.
Dougherty admits his dramatic slide down the rankings coincided with him falling out of love with golf. He’d reached the point, in fact, where the lack of enjoyment had actually started to make him think about packing it in altogether.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen and the smile is starting to appear on Dougherty’s face again. He still has a long way to get back up the ladder, but events like the Scottish Challenge, where he had Hannah McCook, a Scottish girl international from Grantown-on-Spey, caddying for him, are valuable stepping stones.
“I needed to get the enjoyment back and it’s easy to do out here, where you’re away from the focus a little bit more,” he admitted. “The attitudes of the players out on this Tour are fantastic. Everyone’s quite laid back and they enjoy the game.
“If anything, you could say it should be the other way around because some of these guys are going week-to-week. Money matters, whereas on the European Tour it doesn’t.
“I see a lot more smiling faces out here than I used to when I was on the European Tour, including myself at times. We all get a bit wrapped up in it and think it is end-of-the-world stuff. You’re saying, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve just lost £30,000 and I’ve only won £80,000’.
“I did think it would always be like that [playing for big prizes on the main Tour]. You take it for granted, which is not a good thing. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t swanning around like I was the big I am, but I did kind of think, this is just what I do now, and you do lose touch with what it’s like and what’s going on out here on the Challenge Tour.”
Dougherty, who had his pregnant wife Di, the former Sky Sports golf presenter, watching him in Aviemore, has hit walls in the past but none has been bigger than the one he’s currently trying to scale.
“Before it was all very easy, a bit like Rory [McIlroy] up until this point,” he added. “When everyone’s telling you you’re amazing and you’re playing great golf, it just snowballs. But, when you hit a wall like this one and it’s taken away, the world’s not quite as friendly a place.
“People aren’t queuing up to have a piece of you anymore and that I think is when you have to show your mettle.
“You learn a lot more when you have to do that, so it will mean significantly more coming back and, when I get there, I will thoroughly deserve it.”
Getting there is also the target for the likes of James Byrne, David Law and Michael Stewart, the top three amateurs to come through the system in Scotland in recent years and now cutting their teeth in the paid ranks.
None of the trio made the cut at Macdonald Spey Valley, where the eight home players who did survive the halfway axe were a mix of seasoned Challenge or Tartan Tour players.
In fairness to Byrne, Law and Stewart, they have never said it would be easy as they made the transition from amateur to professional and let’s hope the trio can all retain the enjoyment that Dougherty is talking about as they pursue their dreams.
What the SGU need to take on board, however, as they seem to encourage an endless flood of players into the paid ranks, is that it’s tougher than it has ever been to secure a foothold on the Challenge Tour, never mind the European Tour.