Rising Stars to Watch on the European Tour in 2018
Post by Sports Journalist Joe Hughes
This season, in a similar way to every other thrilling season on the European Tour, features many golfers with incredible potential. Of course, not all of these guys will go on to become a multiple major winner, but there are definitely several players who are looking to emerge from the golfing shadows into the professional spotlight.
It feels correct to begin with the young Indian who has taken the tour by storm this season and still looks to have more to offer. At just 21 years old, Sharma has established himself as a top golfer by winning twice in the 2017/18 season already. He first came out on top in the Joburg Open back in December, when finishing with a convincing three stroke cushion ahead of runner-up, Erik van Rooyen. The victory in South Africa meant that he had secured a full European Tour card, and he has fully justified this reward, since. In early February, Sharma appeared in the winner’s circle once more at the Maybank Championship. The golfing world witnessed some of the Indian’s best golf and there could be no argument to suggest that his performances were not worthy of a top-100 spot in the world rankings. Having broken into the top-100 for the first time, Sharma now occupies the 72nd position and this are still looking up. The fairy-tale looked set to continue at the WGC Mexico Championship where he held the 54-hole lead. But, it was not to be. The WGC debutant struggled on Sunday, and signed his card for a final-round of 74, leaving him in tied 9th position. Despite not winning the event, there was yet even more positive news to come for Sharma, as he received a coveted invite to what many would say is golf’s best tournament, the Masters. He became the fourth player from India to tee it up in the event.
Sharma was the man to catch on Europe’s marquee tour as he sat on top of the Race to Dubai rankings before Patrick Reed's win at Augusta, looking down on so-called big guns such as Tommy Fleetwood, Alex Noren and Rory McIlroy. Only time will tell what the rest of the season has in store for the 21-year-old, but it looks almost certain that Sharma will be contending at the highest level in years to come.
The second player on the list comes in the form of Belgian, Thomas Detry. The 25 year-old has spent his life around golf and it is beginning to look like that is paying-off as his performances on the European Tour steadily improve. As of yet, Detry has not been able to finish on top in a European Tour event, but did win a professional event on the challenge tour in 2016. He picked up the trophy at the Bridgestone Challenge with a winning score of 29 under-par, and a winning margin of 12 strokes. So, it is not hard to see why Detry has been tipped for big things by many, once he completely finds his feet on Europe’s top tour.
This season, the world number 207 has showed a large amount of consistency and seems to be getting to grips with the ways of the European Tour. To this point, he has competed in eight events and has not missed a cut. On an even more positive note, he has achieved a finish inside the top-40 on six of those occasions, including finishing tied 9th at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship back in January. Detry looks to be a very intelligent golfer and although his driving distance stats are not right up there at the top, he seems to be getting results from tricky positions. He currently sits in 34th position for scrambling on tour, which surely illustrates that his short game is up to a good standard. Having watched Detry on a number of occasions this year, I believe that his style of play, coupled with the natural talent he seems to possess, will land him a trophy sooner rather than later. He’s definitely one to watch.
Next, we move on to the man who holds the record for the lowest round ever scored by a Chinese golfer in a major. It was well documented that at the Open Championship in 2017, the young Asian made a stunning final day climb up the leader board, finishing with a round of 63. This not only secured him solo third place, but also landed him his first invite to the Masters.
Li is ranked number 42 in the Official World Golf Rankings but is sitting pretty in 10th in the Race to Dubai standings with one win to his name already this season. Towards the end of January, Li picked up his second professional title that out in the Middle-East at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. The Chinese player impressively dealt with the pressure of having none other than Rory McIlroy breathing down his neck and in fact looked more than comfortable leading on a Sunday. Following this victory, he achieved his highest ever OWGR position as he rose to 32nd and it is unlikely that this will be his best for very long.
Although the 22 year-old’s results have been somewhat hit and miss since the beginning of the year, his talent is undeniable and in my opinion, he looks to have the makings of a future major winner, possibly even this season, who knows?
The fourth name to look out for may be one that is less familiar. Christiaan Bezuidenhout is a 23 year-old, South African, who is beginning to look like a very exciting prospect on tour. As the 2017 Rookie of the Year on the Sunshine Tour, it is perhaps unsurprising that many are convinced he will progress massively in 2018. However, despite this award, gaining a European Tour card for the current season was not a certainty. The South African demonstrated just why he deserved a card when playing his final round at Tour School, in Spain. A brilliant round of 67, finished off with a calm birdie meant that Bezuidenhout was able to get his hands on a much sought after European Tour card and would see him come toe-to-toe with some of the best in the game.
Prior to 2018, Bezuidenhout had been playing the majority of his golf on the Challenge Tour, but has looked comfortable becoming more of a regular on the European Tour this season. To this point, he has teed it up in seven European Tour events, which already exceeds his total from the whole of last season. He currently sits in 137th place in the Race to Dubai standings and whilst this position poses no threat to the leaders, it is a steady place for Bezuidenhout as he settles in to life on the tour. He is yet to achieve a top ten finish since he made the step up, but with a tied-17th in the Tshwane Open and T30 in the Joburg Open, the promise and talent is most definitely present.
The final addition to the list is 18 year-old, Phachara Khongwatmai from Thailand. The youngster is into his second full season on the European Tour, which is incredible considering his age. A stat that is perhaps even more incredible is that in July 2013, he won the Singha Hua Hin Open as an amateur. The professional event, featured on the ASEAN PGA Tour and the win made Khongwatmai the youngest golfer to win a professional competition, aged just 14.
He enjoyed a fairly successful debut season on tour and was noticed by many for the first time when playing the ISPS HANDA World Super 6 Perth. The event, which was played in February of last year, featured an innovative format which saw golfers battle it out over a series of six hole shootouts on the final day. Khongwatmai, who was just 17 at the time, played some outstanding golf and was unfortunate not to leave Australia with his fifth professional title. After booking his place in the final with a victory over Jason Scriviner, he came up against a strong Brett Rumford, who was playing in his home country and proved just too much for the Thai prodigy. However, the experience and recognition that the teenager gained from this event is invaluable and will undoubtedly assist him when in contention in future.
So far this season, he has missed five cuts and has been struggling to pick up any real momentum, which I believe can be excused as it has to be tough for such a young golfer to adapt to the demands of the European Tour. His best finish came in the Maybank Championship where he finished tied for 17th in a strong field, once again demonstrating that when he plays well, he can compete with more experienced professionals. Khongwatmai has taken a few weeks away from the European Tour, and has played on the All Thailand Golf Tour where he claimed yet another win, as he added the Singha Masters to his career victories.
Having been so successful to this point in his career, the future is looking very exciting for Khongwatmai.
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