Birdie bursts from Ryder Cup pair Darren Clarke and Robert Karlsson were not enough to stop Australian Scott Strange completing a wonderful wire-to-wire win in the Wales Open at Celtic Manor today.
The 31-year-old from Perth, never previously higher than 10th on European soil and ranked only 164th in the world, showed himself to be a front-runner of real substance on the new course built to stage the 2010 Ryder Cup.
Never caught from the moment he opened with a 63 on Thursday, Strange produced a flawless closing 64, the joint best of the day, to win with a staggering 22 under par total of 262.
Karlsson, third in his previous three events, also shot 64 but finished four shots back in second place, while Clarke’s 66 – it promised to be so much better the way he started – lifted him from 14th into a tie for fourth, albeit a distant nine strokes adrift of Strange.
“I looked up and thought I was doing okay, but those guys were making birdies all over the place,” said the Ulsterman after giving his Ryder Cup bid another big lift following his victory in China in April.
“The course is not that easy, but they are obviously making it look very easy.”
Clarke, the only player to have two rounds of 60 in European Tour history, birdied five of the first seven holes to be only three behind, but a shocking five-iron into the water on the short 13th was effectively the end of his challenge for the £300,000 first prize.
Karlsson, lying joint third overnight, was the next to test the leader’s character, six successive birdies around the turn making it eight in all for the tall Swede.
That cut Strange’s advantage to two, but with a matching outward 31 and then further birdies on the 11th and 14th the two-time Asian Tour winner re-established his command and it was pretty much game over.
Unless, that was, he had a repeat of the dizzy spell he suffered late in his third round.
But while he did not exactly look in the best of health he did what he had to.
Clarke added: “I obviously knew I was playing okay, but I didn’t want to get ahead of myself and make a mess of it.
“I hit a couple of so-so shots, but I was very comfortable with what I was trying to do and I’m looking forward to next week in Austria.”
He could have gone straight on to tomorrow’s US Open qualifier at Walton Heath in Surrey, but is among more than 20 players who have pulled out to concentrate on European events instead.
The field as a result is down to only 46 competing for around eight places at Torrey Pines.
On recovering from his double bogey with an eagle at the driveable 15th, Clarke, who was outside the world’s top 200 at the start of the year and could now find himself back in the top 100 after this, stated: “I’m taking things more on the chin and getting on with it.
“I laughed when I went in the water – I’ve not always done that!
“I’m disappointed I’m not in the US Open, but I’ve got to try to make sure I’m exempt for The Open and this whole week has provided me with a lot of positives.
“Life is better and I am very close to the way I want to hit the ball.”
France’s Raphael Jacquelin was third on his own and joint fourth with Clarke were English pair Nick Dougherty and Benn Barham, Italian Francesco Molinari and Argentina’s Rafa Echenique.
Dougherty finished birdie-eagle for a 68 and stays eighth in the Ryder Cup race, while Karlsson strengthens his position at sixth.
Colin Montgomerie’s closing 72 dropped him to 58th of the 73 who made the cut and means he has still not had a top-40 finish in strokeplay since January. A ninth Ryder Cup cap looks further away than ever.
Yorkshire’s Danny Willett, meanwhile, finished his professional debut down in 61st and the former amateur world number one – 19th and 10th on his two Tour starts before joining the paid ranks – will be looking for something much better next time out.
He has to make around £150,000 from seven invitations to avoid the qualifying school at the end of the year.