NICK Dougherty's next prize in sight is a coveted Ryder Cup spot after capturing only his second European Tour title at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.

The Chorley ace grabbed the biggest victory of his young career at St Andrews on Sunday, winning by two strokes to bank an incredible £392,368 top prize.

But more important than money to the 25-year-old will have been his surge up golf's official world rankings - from 99 to 47 as a result of his efforts on the Scottish coast - and his rise to the top of the European Ryder Cup points table.

Less than a year from now, Dougherty, a former student at Blackburn's Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, will hope to make his Ryder Cup debut as Nick Faldo's side defend the trophy against the United States in Valhalla, Kentucky.

But Dougherty admits he must continue playing in the big tournaments to cement his European squad place, after just missing out on the 2006 team that triumped at The K Club in Ireland.

"I've just got to cling on now," he admits. "Of course, it is important to me. I really want to make that team.

"But you've got to play - that's the thing I've noticed before. When I got close last time for the Ryder Cup, I never had any really big finishes in big events.

"I realise that's what you have to do to make that team and wins like this are very important. To come out on top in a tournament this size and against a field of this stature will give me huge amounts of confidence for any tournament now."

Dougherty's joy at the Old Course has capped a superb 2007 season, in which he had previously led in almost a dozen tournaments, including the US Open at Oakmont.

Being unable to finish the job in those events only heightened Dougherty's frustration as he looked to add to his first European Tour success - the Singapore Masters in 2005.

But the Shaw Hill professional is relieved to finally get his hands on silverware again after spurning so many chances.

He added: "I've done fantastically well this year.

"It's because of what I've done that I was in a position to be able to win. Thankfully, the errors have been in events that haven't been as important as this one, and so it's nice for me to get it right in the right place.

"It is a relief. It feels like it's been a long time since I won Singapore, many opportunities not taken and many squandered.

"It's nice to be on the receiving end of a trophy again."

While his debut Tour triumph in Singapore proved a pivotal career moment, Dougherty insists his victory north of the border against a field of star-studded names, is a more life-changing feat.

"Singapore was a fantastic win," explained Dougherty. "But this is a very big lift, there are very good players who I've beaten to win the tournament.

"It's one of our biggest events on Tour now, certainly in prize money, which attracts the stronger players.

"Whenever you get the likes of Ernie Els teeing it up, it's worth winning."