Fifteen Challenge Tour players earned promotion to the European Tour last weekend. Golf expert Ben Coley profiles each and every one of them.
Joachim B. Hansen
"I have played on the European Tour for three years before and have learned a lot from that experience. Now that this season has ended it is time to aim higher and look at bigger goals."
Always had the ability to make into a solid European Tour operator and the signs were there than he'd graduate from this class with ease, despite a mediocre 2017 campaign. Last December, Hansen finished 15th in the Australian PGA and sixth in the Joburg Open and he began 2018 with a Nordic League victory which allowed him to head to the season-opening Kenyan Open with confidence.
A missed cut in Nairobi represented a step in the wrong direction but Hansen was soon back to his best with second place in China followed by his Challenge Tour breakthrough, a three-shot victory in the Turkish Airlines Challenge. Then followed a string of quality performances, including in low-grade European Tour events such as the Belgian Knockout (12th) and Shot Clock Masters (12th), before delighting the home crowds with a five-shot romp in the Made in Denmark Challenge.
Hansen hasn't quite been in the same form since but there have been more highlights nonetheless, including a 49th place in the Made In Denmark which included two eagles, one of which was a hole-in-one, and four doubles. That's him: there are mistakes in the bag, no doubt, but there are runs of scoring which can transform a week. We saw as much when he followed a quadruple bogey with seven birdies in eight holes at the Scottish Open five years ago, the year he held onto his European Tour card as a rookie.
So far, Hansen has shown an adaptability which will help him on his fourth crack at European Tour level. He's managed contending performances in Scotland, Australia and Russia to go with those wins in Scandinavia, Turkey and the Far East. He's also got experience which many of those who make the transition with him appear to lack, and with Danish golf thriving can be expected to make his mark.
"I am going to play on the PGA Tour next week, after that I will take one week off and then get started on the European Tour’s new season which I am very excited about."
It took until the final event of the season for this young Spaniard to win his first Challenge Tour title, having gone close on numerous occasions as he breezed through his debut campaign. Arnaus had to show serious mettle to win in the UAE, too, making birdie on the final hole to win by one ad complete a wire-to-wire success.
Not that we should've been surprised. Arnaus won his third Alps Tour start last year and went on to win the Grand Final in Italy, all while an amateur, and this former Texas A&M student was one of the best in the sport before electing to turn professional.
Freeze the frame at the end of videos of his swing and you'd be mistaken for thinking this was Jon Ram, the leading light of Spanish golf. Whether Arnaus can make an impact so immediate has to be in doubt, but there's little doubt this powerful Barcelona boy can play. He's one with a very bright future.
"It’s an achievement that I can’t really put into words. Pulling in a win in the biggest week of the year is unbelievable."
Frenchman who has completed the well-trodden Alps-Challenge-European Tour path fairly quickly, picking up three titles along the way. He'll feel that two years on the Challenge Tour was one too many, a brave 67 in the final round of the final event last year not quite enough for a top-15 spot, but took care of business early this time with victory in the Foshan Open.
That play-off success had been coming and few players ended the season playing as well as Perez, who put together form figures of 4-15-11-14-4-7-1-2 from mid-summer onwards and so nearly won the final event having piled pressure onto the shoulders of Arnaus.
As an amateur, Perez competed against the likes of Rahm and Bryson DeChambeau, including when second to the former in a strong renewal of the Eisenhower Trophy, while he was on the same college team as the promising Malaysian, Gavin Green. The highlight from his stay in New Mexico must surely have been victory in the prestigious Aggie Invitational, won previously by Anthony Kim, Rickie Fowler and Peter Uihlein, but truth be told he was a frequent contender.
Softly-spoken but shouldn't be underestimated having impressed in his short career so far.
"It’s huge for me personally. I’ve been hunting for that card for a long time and I think this is the best way to get on the European Tour, by finishing in the top 15 on the Challenge Tour. It’s been a long season and finally I can be sure that I’ll be playing there next year."
Well-travelled Finn who enjoyed a breakout year, finally winning his first notable title at the Hainan Open. Defending a two-stroke lead heading into the final round, his task was made easier by early mistakes from those closest and it did seem like a grind as he achieved a long-held goal, eight years after turning professional.
It's hard not to draw comparisons with Kim Koivu, his compatriot, and truth be told Samooja probably doesn't have the same scope to make an impact at European Tour level. That said, his prior experience playing in Asia must have contributed towards that win in China and it's surely in his favour that he's had to work harder than some to earn this opportunity.
One other note: his victory came three weeks after he'd become a father. Over the best part of a decade and more than a hundred recognised-tour events without a win then, along comes a baby, next comes a trophy. Put it in the notebook... particularly if Samooja and his wife decide to have another.
"Kenya has always treated me well. I don’t really know what it is about here, but I always get some good feelings each time I come back."
Solid-looking Swede who made his European Tour debut in the 2014 Nordea Masters, starting strongly before things got a little much over the closing 54 holes. Still, it was a bright start for another who has cut his teeth on the increasingly competitive Nordic Golf League, where he won back in March having also done so a couple of times in 2013 before earning a Challenge Tour card via Qualifying School.
Since then, Soderberg has won two Challenge Tour titles, one in 2016 and one earlier this year. The first came in Kenya at altitude and it's perhaps significant, then, that during a low-key European Tour campaign in 2017 he did show up nicely in South Africa. Given that he also went well in the Rocco Forte Open in Sicily and has since won in Italy, perhaps he'll prove to be a player who lights up when returning to locations which provide fond memories.
While very much Swedish, Soderberg's family lived in Belgium when he was a child so watch for him going well there having closed with a round of 64 in the KPMG Trophy earlier this summer. He'll also hope for an invite to play in his hometown of Gothenburg in August before a chance, perhaps, to showcase those altitude skills in Switzerland. And don't forget about Kenya: the European Tour goes to Karen GC this spring, where his breakthrough came in 2016.
Beyond the speculation it's quite hard to know what to expect, except that is for the odd fast start. Soderberg opened with a round of 61 in the aforementioned Rocco Forte Open and has been a regular feature on Thursdays, both at Challenge and European Tour level. Watch for him to make an early impact, in every sense, in South Africa.
Jack Singh Brar
"My dad started playing golf when he was 40, and I just followed him. He fell in love with the game and then, so did I. My dad is currently caddying. But in the long term, he won’t be on the bag."
Seriously promising youngster who, at 21 (turns 22 on November 18), is among the babies of this bunch. It hasn't held him back so far. Singh Brar won on the Alps Tour in February and, in September, completed his Challenge Tour breakthrough with victory over Arnaus in the Cordon Golf Open.
None of this will surprise those who saw the 2017 Walker Cup, during which Singh Brar starred despite Great Britain and Ireland being on the end of a hiding. He won three of his four matches and was sent out first in the final singles session, losing late on to the vastly more experienced Stewart Hagestad. Other amateur highlights include victory in the Lytham Trophy while his ambition can be underlined by the fact he swapped Hampshire for Dorset in order to access better facilities.
Having missed just one cut in his last 15 starts, he arrives on the European Tour ahead of time but, just maybe, ready to hold his own. With the support of Niall Horan's Modest! Golf stable, he has strong backing to go with his abundant potential. He's certainly one to watch and it will of course be interesting to see if a return to India, where his family hails from, goes well. Singh Brar says he's not been back there since he was six, mind.
"I feel I’m ready and there’s nothing to be scared of. I want to try to win tournaments and that’s always been my outlook at whatever level I’ve competed at. I think you have to set the bar higher than simply looking to hold on to your tour card. If that’s all you are trying to do then anything below that means you’re back off the tour."
One of the most promising young Scottish players around and has been for a while now, ever since reaching the final of the Amateur Championship on the back of winning not only the Scottish equivalent, but the St Andrews Links Trophy. The last man to complete that double for Scotland was Steven O'Hara at the beginning of the century.
Clearly, a number of similar players have struggled to bridge the gap in recent years, their task made more difficult by the stark contrast between the amateur circuit - match play, largely, and where the UK is concerned typically on some grand old links - and the professional circuit, dominated by big, modern, parkland courses. It's a challenge which Forrest, whose best performance this year came on one of the most difficult, exposed courses the Challenge Tour visited, will also have to overcome.
In his favour, Forrest did attend college in the US and, while his peak performance there came at the links-like Chambers Bay, there's more to his potential than that. In fact, the tournament in which he's proven most effective so far is the Hainan Open, where he's twice been runner-up, and there was evidently enough to like for Tim Mickelson, Phil's brother, to recruit him in San Diego.
Forrest's prospects are strengthened by the success of his peers on the circuit. It's too soon to get carried away, but at last there's a wave of potential from Scotland and he's very much part of it. It'll be fascinating to see if they can feed off each other and climb the ladder.
"I have been working hard over the last four years with my team prepping myself for this point so that when I turn pro I’m ready. Today I showed that I am definitely ready."
One of two Finnish players to have qualified and did so as the only Challenge Tour member to win three times during the season. Victory number one came in China, where a closing 64 was enough for a comfortable success, before he won twice in three starts in summer. The first of those came via a play-off on home soil, the second by a whopping six shots after he'd opened up with a round of 62 which left the rest playing for second.
Having earned battlefield promotion, Koivu then stepped up to the European Tour and finished seventh in Portugal in amongst a series of missed cuts. Indeed he missed cuts regularly on the Challenge Tour and it's been his ability to go deep at weekends which has been most impressive so far.
There's a growing Finnish contingent on the European Tour, headed now by Tapio Pulkkanen and Mikko Korhonen, and Koivu is expected to find his feet quickly. Having only been professional for a year, he promises to be the player who puts his country firmly on the golfing map, building on the success earlier of Mikko Ilonen and, lately, Korhonen.
"I'm lucky, my appetite for the game is still there. I want to learn and improve, and keep playing until 60 perhaps. So I think with golf the longevity is there, isn't it?"
Still best known for making a World Cup hole-in-one... and following it with an 11. He'll be glad, therefore, that his return to Australia later this month comes at a different Melbourne course as he seeks to end a successful year on a high. Other than that, scan the internet and you're most likely to find quotes about his junior football experience playing against Craig Bellamy ("He was nasty...") and Michael Owen.
Manley is the journeyman of this bunch. At 39, he's been a professional for 15 years and it took 10 of those before his breakthrough at this level in the Finnish Challenge. Later in 2013, he finished second in the Hong Kong Open, his best European Tour finish after he lost a three-man play-off and it's on those shorter, firmer courses that he'll look to spring a surprise. While his first win came in a shootout, it's no surprise Manley's second, earlier this year, was a six-under grind.
Five years on from that runner-up in HK, Manley is back at the top table with his 40th birthday looming. He'll see the same event as an opportunity to earn valuable prize money once he's played World Cup golf with Bradley Dredge, but the worry is his spring form, which saw him finish third, eighth and second before winning, appears to have been lost.
"I thought I could do it for sure, but not as soon as I have."
Good friends with Forrest and saw him off to win the Costa del Sol Match Play 9 in May. That was his Challenge Tour breakthrough, but he'd earlier won on the Pro Golf Tour in Morocco and would go on to win the Kazakhstan Open, a hugely valuable event which sealed his graduation to the European Tour.
All of this means Johnston is ahead of schedule - he'd given himself three years and has done it in one, having began without status and relying instead on invites. That ability to learn quickly and take an opportunity was in evidence when he made the cut on his European Tour debut and he played well on an invite in the Porsche European Open, too, so combined with the ruthlessness he's displayed in contention there are grounds for optimism.
Johnston perhaps didn't quite carry the same reputation into the professional game as some of his peers, younger friend Connor Syme having been one of several considered to be higher up the pecking order, but not always does amateur golf translate.
"I took a little different route than a lot of the Americans coming over here. It's just the travel. I don't think the guys out there that I played college golf with know how easy they have it playing on the Web.com or PGA, because playing in Europe and Challenge Tour, it's tough. The flights aren't easy. The travel's not easy. Getting from A to B is not easy."
Talented young American who flirted with a European Tour breakthrough at the start of the year when, playing on invites, he gained some valuable experience including when contending in Qatar. That all helped when he dropped down to the Challenge Tour and it didn't take long for the results to come; the only surprise is he failed to turn one of five top-fives into a first professional win.
Crocker is a product of the US college system who ranked sixth in the world before turning professional. He competed with some of the best his country has to offer, including losing at the semi-final stage of the US Amateur to Bryson DeChambeau, and hopes remain high that he'll plot a path back to the US and a PGA Tour card. A prodigious hitter, he hits a lot of greens and that's the formula which offers the most straightforward route to success at the very highest level.
Given that he's played all over the world despite only recently turning 22, leaning on the knowledge of mentor Sergio Garcia and friend Sam Horsfield at times, it's expected that Crocker will have little trouble stepping up in grade and while some way down the end-of-season rankings, he conceded a start to the others. Along with Adri Arnaus and Jack Singh Brar, he's among the most exciting graduates heading into 2019.
It may also be worth noting that Crocker was born in Zimbabwe, the son of a Test cricketer in fact. While his family left for the US before he'd picked up a golf club, it's still possible he relishes a return to Africa and picks up a big cheque before the big-guns come out to play in January.
"I played golf the way I used to as an amateur and never let the pressure of turning pro affect my game. It was fun playing on the MENA Tour. The competition is great and so is the atmosphere and I look forward to playing more events next season."
Another young Scot, Macintyre turned professional late last year and made an immediate impression, finishing third and first in two starts on the MENA Tour before an excellent 41st at Qualifying School. The left-hander had enjoyed a distinguished amateur career and, like Forrest, lost in the final of the Amateur Championship having won the Scottish equivalent.
While much has of course changed since, the eye is also drawn to Macintyre's Walker Cup performance in 2017. He was the man unfortunate enough to be drawn against superstar-in-the-making Cameron Champ in both singles sessions; Macintyre won the first 6&4 before halving the second, all on Champ's home turf of California. Macintyre no doubt had greater incentive than some to perform in the US, where his college career ended abruptly after a promising start when he fell out with his coach.
More recently, Macintyre owes his European Tour card to a strong run of form at just the right time. Two runner-up finishes, latterly behind Perez in China, followed by sixth place in the Grand Final secured his swift promotion and while the learning curve is steep, he's bound to draw inspiration from what he did as an amateur.
"I have no words because it is my first victory. It feels amazing to do it with the same tee shot, the same game, the same everything and I just stayed really patient on the golf course."
At 33 years old, Gagli is back for another crack at the European Tour and this time returns as a Challenge Tour winner, having landed the Kenya Open at the start of the season. That was his first success of note since a trio of Alps Tour wins at the beginning of his career and meant much to the Italian, who had gone close in the 2011 Madrid Masters but struggled to match those exploits since.
To survive this season, Gagli needs to rediscover the game which not only earned him that play-off success in the spring, but took him to a lucrative top-20 finish in the Italian Open won by Thorbjorn Olesen. Since then, Gagli's form has nosedived, five missed cuts in a row preceding a distant 30th at the no-cut Grand Final.
At his best an accurate driver who hits a lot of greens, Gagli can draw some inspiration from the drastic improvement of Andrea Pavan this year but ultimately lacks scope to improve and seems likely to endure a season of struggle, perhaps ending in another visit to Qualifying School.
"Paul's helped me out since I was about 15, so that's 12 years now and he's stuck by me the whole time. He's always there if I need him - advice or coaching. I've done short game and putting with Paul for years, which obviously he's exceptional at doing himself."
A protege of fellow Aberdonian, Paul Lawrie, Law earned his breakthrough victory on home soil at Spey Valley earlier in the year before clinging onto a place inside the top 15 after an anxious wait.
Having also bagged a runner-up finish this season it's clear that he's an improved player and his experience advantage over fellow Scottish graduates is significant, but it's hard to ignore the fact that he lacks the potential of his compatriots and has struggled badly on rare forays to the European Tour.
That being said, personal tragedy - Law's son was stillborn in 2017 - has given the 27-year-old great perspective and he'll meet the challenges ahead in the right manner, backed by one of the most successful golfers his country has ever produced.
"It feels amazing to finish on the top 15 in the Road to Ras Al Khaimah Rankings. I still can’t believe it. I can’t describe how happy I am, to get on to the European Tour, it’s a dream come true. We will head to Dubai to celebrate, dinner is going to be on me tonight so whoever wants to join is more than welcome."
Last on the list is Figueiredo, the Paris-born Portuguese who many believed would be the finest golfer his nation has produced. His amateur career certainly promised as much and, at 27, perhaps the best is yet to come.
Figueiredo secured his Challenge Tour breakthrough win in June, taking a three-man play-off, and has been consistent enough since without necessarily threatening to double up, bar third place in Scotland. Still, it was impressive to see him shoot a final-round 67 in the Grand Final, to climb from 17th place to 15th and move up a level.
In terms of the European Tour he lacks experience, most of the 20 or so events he's played having come in Portugal, and while once considered a serious prospect he needs to improve to get competitive. That said he can draw great strength from the way he finished in the UAE, the last of six final-round birdies coming at the 72nd hole to deny Tom Murray by little more than 600 points.
Others in this series...
Ben Coley's first batch of players to watch included Cameron Champ, who went on to win later that week.
A look at those who came through Web.com Tour Finals.
A detailed look at those to earn their European Tour cards at Final Stage Qualifying School, which concludes on November 15.
Back On Track
Which players might be set to get their careers moving back in the right direction during the next 12 or so months? Find out here.
At The Top
Finally, we'll grade the world's top 50 players on their achievements in 2018 and profile the world's top 10, plus one or two more besides.