The European Tour will head to Vilamoura in Portugal this week after a tight and dramatic tournament at Valderrama last week. the second of three tournaments on the Iberian Swing – next comes the Open de Portugal. Steven Brown returns to defend his 2019 title as do both runners-up last year, Brandon Stone and Justin Walters.
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South African duo Stone and Justin Walters finished one shot back to share second place in Vilamoura. Stone ended his season ranked 97th in the Race to Dubai after jumping up 51 places from 148th while Walters secured his card after moving up to 79th from 121st. There was also joy for Jeunghun Wang and Jack Singh Brar who moved into the top 115 to retain their playing privileges for 2020 after moving up to 109th and 101st respectively.
It is all very different this week. Once again, there will be no spectators. There are more tournaments to come. And, at the end of it all, nobody will be losing their rights this year. It was all very confusing last year. In theory, the top 110 in the rankings get to keep their cards but Jon Rahm and Patrick Reed played fewer than six events, while Tony Finau, Billy Horschel, Aaron Wise and Min Woo Lee were affiliate members. When those players were removed from the top 110, the magic number became 116 but, with affiliate member Abraham Ancer sat at 114th, it increased to 117.
And nobody experienced more of an emotional rollercoaster than South Africa’s Walters. He arrived at this event in 2013 having lost his mother weeks earlier and with the pressure of knowing he needed an exceptional week to keep his card. He faced with a 60-foot putt on the final green for par and solo second and he made it, prompting an emotional celebration as his place on Tour was secured.
Last year he arrived in Portugal 121st in the Race to Dubai Rankings after another difficult season on and off the course. He had struggled with injury and then lost his father in August and readily admitted that he struggled to cope.
An opening 63 at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship showed that his game was still there, and a closing 65 at the Italian Open handed him a top ten in a Rolex Series event and gave him a fighting chance to keep his card.
He laid the foundations with an opening 65 and rarely looked like falling back as he followed it with rounds of 66 and 71. He was in a tie for the lead with three to play and while he could not claim a first European Tour victory, a closing 66 meant he was second again and up to 79th in the standings, his playing rights secured once again.
In many ways, history has repeated itself for Walters this year. He was struggling once more when he teed it up at the UK Championship at The Belfry before losing in a playoff to Rasmus Hojgaard. Walters, it seems, reserves his best play for this time of year. But at least he will arrive in Portugal with no pressure on his shoulders.
It is difficult to think about possible winners without mentioning Sweden’s Sebastian Soderberg, who enjoyed two top-10 finishes at Celtic Manor during the UK Swing. About to celebrate his 30th birthday, Soderberg won the European Masters last year and relishes “proper” golf courses – and they don’t come much better than Vilamoura.
Keep an eye on Thorbjorn Olesen, too. The Dane may not have exactly set the world alight since returning from exile but there have been plenty of encouraging signs recently. He is clearly enjoying competing again and is not far from his best. If ever there was a golfer who needs a big week, it is Olesen.