Golf 2019 highlights: French maidens continue to edge closer

Benjamin Hebert and Mike Lorenzo-Vera graduated from the Challenge Tour in 2014
Benjamin Hebert and Mike Lorenzo-Vera graduated from the Challenge Tour in 2014

It’s always tempting to believe that the Challenge Tour is like a sort of Swiss finishing school for golfers – a well-drilled establishment whose prospectus suggests it only ever churns out clean-cut types who’ll win majors, players like Henrik Stenson and Martin Kaymer.

In reality, the graduates rather remind me of something a friend who works with wayward teenagers once told me – if just two or three of 15 youngsters on a programme turn their life around, it's a success.

That’s not a criticism of the Tour or the players. Instead it’s an appreciation of how difficult it is to rise through the ranks, an acceptance that there are not only ladders to be climbed, but also snakes to be dodged.

Back in 2014, two Frenchmen finished inside the top ten of the rankings after the conclusion of Grand Final, hosted that year by Al Badia GC in Dubai, and their stories reveal much about that perilous journey between Challenge Tour hopeful and European Tour regular.

Benjamin Hebert won the tournament itself, cruising his way through the 72 holes, eventually finishing five shots clear of the field.

All week he had worn a determined, even dour, expression, looking less like a man in the zone than a schoolboy desperate to complete his final days in education and get out into the big wide world beyond.

He had won three times on the second tier in 2011, but had never established himself on the main tour and had then got stuck at the lower level. Victory in Dubai allowed him to complete a second Challenge Tour seasonal hat-trick, but rarely has a golfer been less exultant when lifting a trophy.

"I’m very thankful to this tour,” he said. “But I never want to see it again. Never. I would swap all six titles for one on the European Tour."

Even as Hebert was uttering these words, his compatriot Mike Lorenzo-Vera was driving a buggy (erratically) around the clubhouse concourse, a gleefully mad smile on his face, looking like some sort of French Wacky Racer.

He, too, had graduated then slipped away and he, too, knew what it was like to get his feet stuck in minor tour mud. In 2007 he had topped the Challenge Tour rankings, but he couldn’t retain his European Tour card and between 2010 and 2013 he floundered on the second tier.

"A lot of people will be pleased to see you back on the European Tour," he was told that afternoon. "You think so?" he countered with a wry smile. "I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe they think I am a bit mad, but thank you for saying it. I will do my best."

Mike Lorenzo-Vera in action at the European Masters at Crans Montana
Mike Lorenzo-Vera in action

Two Frenchmen, two very different golfing personalities, one shared aim: this time, they would make it count.

Five years on, almost to the week, both were back in Dubai, but this time for a very different end-of-season party – the DP World Tour Championship.

It was Hebert’s debut in the event following four seasons of almost eerily consistent rankings. He finished 65th in 2015, 64th the following two seasons and 65th again in 2018.

That he made his bow on the Earth Course was the consequence of taking his game to another level, making a play-off no less than three times in 2019 and if each of them was agonising for him – he lost them all – at the Scottish Open, the torment was shared by many.

Coming on the day England won an epic Cricket World Cup final and Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer duelled in suitably legendary style at Wimbledon, the final round not only started late, but the play-off with Bernd Wiesberger stretched endlessly into the night. In the words of Oz from Auf Wiedersehen, Pet the extra holes that day were "about as welcome as a fart in an astronaut’s suit".

Not Hebert’s fault, of course, and he would probably still swap those six lesser wins for the one he desires, but he’s been as good as his word: there has been no return to the lower level and he ended the year 16th in the Race to Dubai.

Benjamin Hebert
Benjamin Hebert

Three spots behind him at week and year’s end was Lorenzo-Vera and that, too, was a career-best position. He didn’t quite repeat Hebert’s trick of three times finishing second, but he was close, achieving that position twice before lighting up the seasonal finale when third after an audacious attempt to steal the title from the bear-like grip of Jon Rahm.

If Hebert conforms to our notions of neat and tidy Frenchmen, with freshly pressed Lacoste shirts and cashmere sweaters tied loosely around the neck, then Lorenzo-Vera is the quirky French character of stereotypes.

This is the golfer who talks of giving up on lucky pants during post-round questions, the golfer who says "f**k" on television and then shrugs in gloriously Gallic fashion when the interviewer apologises on his behalf, the golfer whose face will contort from glum disappointment to wide-eyed rapture via many other moods in a matter of seconds.

There’s a touch of Mr Benn about him, but whereas the children’s television character visited a fancy dress shop to transform his appearance, Lorenzo-Vera does it at his barber.

In the early days his shaggy mop often called to mind an art thief or the scoundrel in a Jane Austen novel. When it was artfully messed up he could be Danny from Supergrass or even Harry Styles. On one glorious occasion it went all curly and he added a moustache. Suddenly he was Louis XIV or one of Harry Enfield’s scousers.

More modern guises have had him looking like a playboy, a court jester or the mayor of a Bolivian town in about 1830.

The playfulness with his look has always suggested a man with more than golf on his mind and it’s made him easy to pull for. He’s also never been a golfer to hide his flaws or attempt to camouflage his feelings. His honesty is appealing, as is his habit of being the first to mock his hot-headed nature.

But we shouldn’t mistake him for a lightweight who has been winging it. Like Hebert, he is determined. He’s changed swing coach, started working with a sports psychologist, and fatherhood has added maturity.

Top ten on the Challenge Tour to top 20 on the European Tour. Chasing cards to chasing the biggest payday in tournament golf. Hebert and Lorenzo-Vera will be frustrated by the near misses of 2019, but they added much to the story of 2019 and they have come a long way in five years.

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