England’s Sam Little earned the biggest paycheque of his Challenge Tour career with a one-shot win at the M2M Russian Challenge Cup played last week on the Jack Nicklaus-designed layout at Tseleevo Golf and Polo Club outside of Moscow.
Little collected the €40,000 winner’s check after holding off a late surge from his compatriot Andrew Johnston, who picked up four shots in his final five holes to set up a nail-biting finish at Tseleevo Golf and Polo Club, near the Russian capital of Moscow. The Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course is considered perhaps the most demanding and certainly the most scenic course on the Challenge Tour Schedule. It is also a favorite among competitors.
"It’s a great course, and also a very fair course,” Argentina’s Daniel Vancsik said. "If you strike the ball well you can make some birdies, but you can also drop shots of you’re not quite on top of your game. The key to a good score here is getting through the holes after the turn without too much damage."
When Little hit an exquisite bunker shot to within a foot of the hole for a tap-in birdie on the 17th to move to 11 under par and open up a two shot gap over the field, the title appeared to be his.
But Challenge Tour rookie Johnston had other ideas, holing a huge birdie putt on the 18th green to ensure that Little would need to make at least a par to secure his third Challenge Tour victory.
Little found the middle of the fairway with his drive, and after hitting his approach to the heart of the green, the 36 year old made no mistake with two putts for par for a closing round of 68 and a 277 aggregate winning total.
Incredibly, Little had been four over par for his first four holes of the tournament, but he covered the next 68 in 15 under par to record his first victory for seven years.
The win moved the Londoner up to from 43rd to sixth place in the Challenge Tour Rankings, and assured him a swift return to The European Tour.
An emotional Little attributed his victory to his short game, having made four crucial up and downs on the back nine.
“It feels fantastic,” Little said. “I played really well today. In fact, I’ve played really well all week, except for my first four holes. At that point I was thinking about catching an early flight home, but I turned it around and couldn’t be happier. I’ve come close to winning a couple of times on the main Tour but it’s been a while since I last won on the Challenge Tour, so I had wondered if I still had it in me. It’s been a tough year, and I did think I might’ve blown my chance after playing poorly on the last day in Kazakhstan last week. So I’m really relived to get the job done here, and now I can look forward to getting back onto the main Tour next year.
“There were obviously a few nerves first thing this morning, because it’s been a while since I was in this position going into the final day. But I got off to the perfect start with a birdie on the first, and I couldn’t have played much better on the front nine. I hit two great approach shots to the ninth and tenth, and really should have birdied at least one of those holes to give me a bit of breathing space.
“Then when I hit my ball into the bunker on the 12th and gave myself a horrid lie, it had looked like I may live to regret the missed chances. But I played a great bunker shot, and managed to get up and down again on the 14th, 16th and 17th holes. Obviously I didn’t really know it at the time, but looking back now they were absolutely crucial. My bunker play is probably the strongest part of my game, so I’m so relieved it stood up under pressure, because it makes all the hours of practice worthwhile.”
Johnston’s consolation for missing out on his first Challenge Tour victory was a check for €27,500, which moved him up to 21st place in the Challenge Tour Rankings, and within sight of a debut season on The European Tour next year.
“I gave it my best shot today,” Johnston said, “and unfortunately I came up just short in the end. But I’m proud of the way I played the last few holes and put pressure on Sam, because it shows I can do it when it really matters. My goal at the start of the season was just to get my Challenge Tour card for next year, because my current category didn’t get me into many events. So now that I’ve done that, the new goal is to finish in the top 20.”
Third place was shared between joint overnight leader Pelle Edberg (72) and the English duo of Andrew Marshall and Sam Walker, who both shot rounds of 70 to join the Swede on seven under par.
Despite dropping down the leader board with a closing round of 77, England’s Tommy Fleetwood still extended his lead at the top of the Rankings after his nearest rival, Portugal’s Ricardo Santos, missed the cut.