Luke Joy makes no attempt to sugar-coat the past 2½ years as a mini-tour journeyman with almost nowhere to play, zero certainly surrounding his professional future and challenges at home that conspired to put even the pandemic curveballs into context.
“It’s been brutal… brutal,” said the Abu Dhabi-based Englishman before acknowledging bride Lauren’s role as a career saviour and emotional rock despite her own personal battles. “If I didn’t have my wife, I’m lucky enough she’s a successful PT [personal trainer]…”
Joy’s answer tapered off as he internalised not only his soul mate’s lop-sided contribution to fiscal survival in the UAE during the pandemic but also the emotional rollercoaster ride the couple have been on since just before the outbreak of COVID-19.
In mid-2019 Lauren was diagnosed with stage four endometriosis, a painful inflammatory condition where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus is found outside the uterus. Thankfully successful surgery in London that December, just as COVID-19 was sweeping the globe, has translated into the joyful pitter patter of tiny feet. The arrival of wee Hugo, the couple’s first child, on February 1 this year means Dad has even more reason to hit the range and revive his stalled career.
It makes another resurrection, that of the MENA Tour’s 2020 Journey to Journey season, timely. Better still, the circuit’s freshly-minted strategic alliance with the Asian Tour means the Beautiful Thailand Swing starting next Tuesday will be co-sanctioned by the Asian Development Tour (ADT).
As such, the four quickfire 54-hole events in Phuket not only promise a combined US$300,000 in prizemoney and enhanced OWGR status, but more importantly a view to a bright new future on a circuit suddenly emboldened by a $300 million investment from Saudi-backed LIV Golf Investments.
As a two-time winner on tour, Joy is the most decorated of the 55 MENA Tour players set to tee it up at Laguna Golf Phuket and Blue Canyon Country Club over the next three weeks. At 17th in the current Order of Merit, he’s also well-positioned to capitalise on some, if not all, of the early sweeteners provided by what is set to become a full merger between the two development tours.
They include an invite to one of the Asian Tour’s new $1.5 million-plus International Series events for the eventual MENA Tour champion, the promise of two further ADT starts and, also for the top-10 in the now rebranded ‘2020+ Journey to Jordan’ standings, exemption to the final stage of Asian Tour Q-School for 2023.
It’s no wonder Joy, who won the MENA Tour’s Dubai Creek Open and GOLF CITIZEN Abu Dhabi Open in a breakout 2014, is a big fan of the new opportunity laden pathway.
“I mean don’t get me wrong, when we had starts for the European Tour stuff which I was very lucky enough to play my way into, the Dubai Desert Classic, the Dutch Open and Morocco and places like that, it was great,” said the 33-year-old.
“But it was like one week, you had one week to perform and you basically finished top-10 at that event or it was done. It’s like a shootout and where those guys [on the DP World Tour] are playing week-in, week-out, 13 on the stimp [metre] greens, firm, rock hard and stuff like that, that is quite a tough adjustment to get straight away.
“Whereas now, if it was in the same situation, the same Order of Merit positions, then next year you’d have an Asian Tour card so I think the progression now is far more valuable.”
That was crystalised for Joy during a stint caddieing for Saudi amateur Saud Al Sharif during the Asian Tour’s $5 million, season-opening PIF Saudi International presented by SoftBank Investment Advisors in early February.
“I also saw the limitations that the European Tour potentially has to offer someone like me at the moment with them cancelling Q-school for the last three years. Basically, I didn’t quite understand the logic of how the Ladies European Tour can have a Q-School and yet the European Tour can’t.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m visualising wins on the European Tour, or visualising wins on the Asian Tour because I’m not there yet. I need to put a plan in place to see where I can get to. Down the road, I see myself on a bigger tour but just at the moment, I’m just going to have to wait and see what avenues open up to see which side of Abu Dhabi airport I’m going take, either to Asia or Europe.”
All signs point to Asia currently and for that, Joy is grateful. Anything has to be better than the last two-plus years with his career on ice.
“Obviously we don’t really have the benefit of, for instance, getting furloughed or anything like that. You’re a performance-based, commission-based entity where when you play well, you win money and you can put food on the table. If you don’t have any opportunity to do that, it’s quite a tough one to sort of salvage.
“I’m lucky enough to have a university degree [via Drake University in Iowa which boasts Zach Johnson among their alumni] to fall back on but some of the guys who don’t have an educational background, and they still want to stay in golf industry, I really don’t know what you could have done. I mean, I started up a granola company just to keep things ticking over in my apartment, you know just random stuff that you would never even have thought of. You had to be adaptable, think outside the box. But yeah, it’s been pretty crap.”
Joy will enter the Beautiful Thailand Swing around his current ranking of 1724th in the OWGR but has been as low as 486th. That was in early January 2018, just a couple of months removed from his best finish on the ADT, second place by a shot to Thai Poosit Supupramal at the Defence Raya Golf Championship in Pakistan.
“That was pretty much my best year to date,” Joy recalls of an actual 14-month stint from September 2016 to the ADT event in Pakistan where he finished runner-up no less than seven times in OWGR events.
“I mean, getting into the top 500 in the world playing on a mini-tour was pretty impressive because the ranking points were basically nothing.”
Given Joy’s last professional outing was his title defence of the King Hamad Trophy at Royal Bahrain last November, it’s little surprise he’s approaching the Beautiful Thailand Swing with nothing more than cautious optimism. Sleepless nights and nappy changing duties for a now three-month-old take precedence over-sharpening ones wedge game after all.
That said, Joy isn’t jetting his way to Phuket to “make up the numbers.” He’s won on the MENA, EuroPro and JAMEGA Tours and sees no reason why he can’t add a trophy engraved with the ADT to his mantelpiece.
“I’ve always tried to make sure that I’m not a donator to the prize fund, you go in there to do a job and some weeks it will go well…” said Joy before another of his patented pauses for thought.
“You know, I want to get to the elusive 10th professional victory. I think I’ve been going for nine years and I think last year was actually the only year I haven’t won as a pro which was quite frustrating, not to get that buzz of winning. So I want to try and get to at least 10 and then get to 20 as quick as possible after that.”
Four three-day events will take place over a span of three weeks at Laguna Golf Phuket and Blue Canyon Country Club, signifying the start of an emerging new relationship between the ADT and MENA Tours.
The ADT restarted last week with the Gurugram Challenge in India, where victory went to American Dodge Kemmer, following a two-year break caused by the pandemic.
“This marks another significant moment in our return,” said Cho Minn Thant, CEO & Commissioner, Asian Tour.
“The Asian Development Tour is an important part of our architecture and while it was encouraging to see it restart in India last week it is really exciting for it now to be building momentum and heading to Phuket for four events with our friends from the MENA Tour.”
Last year the Asian Tour entered a strategic partnership with the MENA Tour which will help facilitate the formation of one of the most comprehensive and innovative development tours in the modern game.
The “Beautiful Thailand Swing” represents the start of this process.
“We are truly excited to return to action next month. It’s been a long wait, but I am glad the hard work has paid off. Our members will have much to play for as the ‘Beautiful Thailand Swing’ will conclude our 2020+ season and the winner for the 2020+ ‘Journey to Jordan’ will be crowned,” said David Spencer, Commissioner, MENA Tour.
For the “Beautiful Swing Thailand” there will be a two-day gap between each event and players from both Tours will compete for a prize purse of US$75,000 in each tournament. The standard 36-hole cut of 50 professionals and ties applies.
The four-event swing will kick off at Laguna Golf Phuket with the Laguna Phuket Challenge starting on May 3, followed by the Laguna Phuket Cup which commences on May 8.
Players will then proceed to play the Blue Canyon Classic which will be held at the Lakes course of the Blue Canyon Country Club from May 13. The swing then concludes with the Blue Canyon Open which will be played at the Canyon course from May 18.
Blue Canyon Country Club and Laguna Golf Phuket successfully hosted the Asian Tour Phuket Series, which marked the Asian Tour’s return to action last November. Laguna Golf Phuket is also an Asian Tour Destination which has hosted multiple ADT events in the past.
The top 10 available professional players from the final 2020+ ‘Journey to Jordan’ will be invited to play in the next two ADT events following the Thailand swing. The winner of the 2020+ ‘Journey to Jordan’ will also receive an invitation to play in one of the upcoming Asian Tour ‘International Series’ tournaments in 2022.
The leading seven players on the final ADT Order of Merit at the end of the season will earn playing rights on the Asian Tour in 2023.
The Boonchu Ruangkit Championship, won by Thailand’s Pavit Tangkamolprasert in January 2020, will be counted as the opening event of the ADT new season.
American Dodge Kemmer claimed his first title in Asia after a decade of trying when he won the US$75,000 Gurugram Challenge today – an event jointly sanctioned by the Asian Development Tour and Professional Golf Tour of India.
He shot a fine final round six-under-par 66 (his third 66 in a row) at Classic Golf & Country Club, just outside New Delhi, to impressively finish 23 under and beat Thailand’s Chanat Sakulpolaphaisan by three shots. Chanat closed with a 68, while India’s Arjun Bhati was two shots further back in third after shooting 66.
Indonesian Rory Hie, the leader after each of the first three days, carded a disappointing 73 to tie for fourth, six behind Kemmer, with Indian Yuvraj Singh Sandhu (67) and England’s Joshua Grenville-Wood (68).
Kemmer, aged 34, started the final round one behind Hie, but played flawless golf to win, carding four birdies on the front and two on the back.
His success ratified his decision to stay on for the event after last week’s The DGC Open presented by Mastercard, where he finished joint 49th.
“It was a great decision!” said Kemmer.
“I like being in India, it was an easy choice. Obviously, a win is always good and good for the confidence and gets me in a good place on the ADT list in case I need that to stay on the Asian Tour next year.”
The American, a graduate of the prestigious Stanford University like current Asian Tour number one Sihwan Kim from the United Sates, turned professional in 2010 and made it through the Asian Tour Qualifying School in 2012. His best finish on the Asian Tour came in the 2017 Bashundhara Bangladesh Open while he has also three top-five ADT finishes to his name.
He added: “I saw on the forecast it was going to be windy and I noticed a lot of the pins yesterday and they were definitely the hardest of the week so I didn’t have a number in mind or expectations but I knew that scores would probably be higher, just with the wind and the pins, and so probably played a little more conservative if anything into the greens and that definitely paid off as I didn’t have any bogeys, which is a great way to have a final round.”
Hie had been favourite to add this week’s trophy to his 2019 Classic Golf & Country Club International Championship win on the Asian Tour at the same venue but never recovered from a double bogey seven on the par-five third.