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As the countdown to the Ras Al Khaimah 2017 Golf Challenge begins, Sweden’s Joel Sjöholm is looking to Jordan Smith, winner of last year’s inaugural event, for inspiration in one of the European Challenge Tour’s most significant events.
Taking place at the stunning Al Hamra Golf Club from Wednesday 26 to Saturday 29 October, the Ras Al Khaimah tournament is the penultimate stop on the Road to Oman and one of the last remaining opportunities, for players to gain a spot in the all-important top 15 on the season rankings to gain promotion to the European Tour.
Having finally secured his first title in his tenth season as a Tour professional at the Italian Challenge Open by Lyoness in July, the 32-year-old now has his sights set on emulating Smith, whose victory at the at the inaugural Ras Al Khaimah Golf Challenge in his rookie season last year sealed top spot on the Road to Oman Rankings.
The win proved to be a springboard to further success on this year’s European Tour where Smith has already won his first title at the Porsche European Open and risen to 18th in the Race to Dubai with his spot in the season-ending DP World Tour Championship at Jumeirah Golf Estates in November already guaranteed.
“I think that all of these fantastic stories of players that go from nothing to everything very quickly shows you that the Challenge Tour is a great place to be but you want to get off it as soon as possible to progress to the European Tour and everyone wants to be like Jordan Smith,” said Sjöholm who was getting some practice in at the European Tour Performance Institute at Jumeirah Golf Estates ahead of the crucial run in of the Challenge Tour season.
“I could clearly see Jordan was a fantastic golfer but I never dreamed his rise to success would go so quickly. But that’s the beauty of golf and everyone is striving to become the next Jordan Smith. Everyone has their own kind of path and some guys are on the Challenge Tour for a little while whilst some are on it for longer and need to learn what to do to progress onto European Tour.”
Sjöholm turned professional in 2008 and began life on the Challenge Tour, gaining promotion to the European Tour after finishing in 12th place on the rankings in 2010. After three seasons in Europe’s top tier he dropped back down to the Challenge Tour in 2014 and after finishing 101st position in last year’s Road to Oman Rankings, he was forced to rely on sponsor’s invites for all but nine or ten events on this season’s schedule. He even resorted to selling chocolates back in Sweden during the off-season to make ends meet and to ensure he had enough cash to sustain his Challenge Tour travels this season. But in golf, winning changes everything and with his victory in Italy came top level ‘Category 1’ eligibility
to the remainder of the season’s events, as well as a newfound confidence on the course which he hopes will power him to European Tour promotion. Sjöholm finished tied 68th in Ras Al Khaimah last year but he enters the event this time around with the prospect of getting back to where he feels he belongs very much in the offing.
“The Ras Al Khaimah 2017 Golf Challenge could be the week that decides if I’m playing on the European Tour next year,” said Sjöholm.
“Last year’s event was amazing and I’m really looking forward to coming back. I did okay – I didn’t do great, but I know what I have to do better this time. It was the first time I’d been there and it was great fun. We got to see most of Ras Al Khaimah and to go up on the mountains was a special moment.
“Last year’s tournament was well run and the players love playing in the UAE. It was also an eye opener for me last year as I hadn’t actually heard of Ras Al Khaimah before so it was really cool to see it and lots of my friends have gone and played on the course since then. It’s great that we are able to bring a golf tournament there.”
The latest entries for the Ras Al Khaimah 2017 Golf Challenge highlight its importance on the schedule.
Finland’s Tapio Pulkkanen, who is currently top billing in the Road to Oman Rankings after victory at the recent Kazakhstan Open in addition to three more top ten finishes including two runner-up spots, heads the line-up.
Also on the hunt for glory is England’s Aaron Rai, who already has three wins to his name and has secured automatic promotion to the European Tour but is expected to play in RAK in a bid to top the Road to Oman Rankings.
Frenchman Julien Guerrier won his second title of the season in Ireland last month and is breathing down Rai’s neck in the Road to Oman knowing that a good showing in RAK and then the season-ending NBO Golf Classic Grand Final in Oman the following week, could be enough to see him crowned Challenge Tour Number One while England’s Ryan Evans, winner of the Turkish Airlines Challenge, will be another one to watch.
With such a lot at stake, competition will be tough at the Ras Al Khaimah 2017 Golf Challenge. But Sjöholm will tee it up at Al Hamra Golf Club as a Challenge Tour winner and in golf, as in life, success breeds success.
“Before I won I never believed I would actually win a golf tournament but since I’ve won it’s given me the confidence to go out and try to win again,” he said. “I think it gives me an advantage when I come into that position again, when I’m coming down the back nine I want to have a chance to win it and I now feel comfortable in that position.”
Joining Sjöholm and his fellow Challenge Tour stars in the soaking up the Ras Al Khaimah 2017 Golf Challenge action will be three local amateurs who secured spots in the event’s Pro-Am after claiming the podium positions in the Golden Ball Grand Final at Al Hamra Golf Club. Over 500 amateurs competed in 20 qualifying events across the region with the winners claiming in spots in the Grand Final where Tower Links Golf Club member Michelle Im took the spoils with a fantastic net 67, while playing partner Sandra Chia from Emirates Golf Club posted a net 72 to take second with Graeme Field from Trump International Golf Club, Dubai.
“It was a wonderful experience and I would like to thank everyone who joined this competition,” said Im. “Sandra was encouraging me to carry on and to produce my best. At first I thought I would not get a chance to go on top and get to play with the Challenge Tour professionals but I managed to clinch first place and now I am excited for the upcoming event. I’m sure it’s going to be a great one.”
“The Golden Ball Series is a wonderful initiative giving local golfers in the region a once in a lifetime opportunity of rubbing shoulders with the next generation of professional golf stars on the European Challenge Tour,” said Haitham Mattar, CEO of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority.
“As the penultimate event on the Challenge Tour calendar the RAK Golf Challenge is a pivotal tournament for players as they bid to end the season in the top 15 on the Road to Oman Rankings and gain promotion to the European Tour.”
“The amateurs who won a spot in the RAK 2017 Golf Challenge Pro-Am will enjoy an unforgettable experience playing alongside some of the best players in the game in a fun yet competitive environment. The championship course located in the idyllic lifestyle village of Al Hamra will take them around natural lagoons in a stunning setting – allowing them to get a feel for the natural beauty of Ras Al Khaimah. We look forward to welcoming them to what is sure to be a fantastic tournament this month.”
For more information on the Ras Al Khaimah 2017 Golf Challenge please visit: http://www.rakgolfchallenge.com/
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