FOURTEEN years after first showing a liking for head-to-head golf as he was crowned as Amateur champion, Finland’s Mikko Ilonen upset the odds by beating the top seed, Henrik Stenson, to win the Volvo World Match Play Championship on its 50th anniversary.
Having booked his spot in the title showdown with the Swede at The London Club in Kent by turning the tables on flying Dutchman Joost Luiten from their group game on the opening day, Ilonen secured his fifth European Tour triumph with an impressive 3&1 success.
The 34-year-old, who had come from one down with five to play to beat Luiten by 2&1 in the morning, was bogey-free in the final, covering the 17 holes in four-under as he took advantage of Stenson, the world No 5 and highest-ranked player in the field, as he ran out of steam in his first appearance since helping Europe win the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles.
“It is impossible to describe how I am feeling and it will take a long time to sink in,” admitted Ilonen after adding his name to one of the most impressive rolls of honour in the game. “I’m proud to be the champion, especially after losing my first match against Joost. I somehow got to the final after that and to beat Henrik is amazing.”
Stenson, who had never been in front against South African George Coetzee in their semi-final until rolling in a 20-foot birdie putt at the last, was partly the architect of his own downfall as he missed out on the chance to complete a notable double after winning the WGC-Accenture Match Play in 2007.
On a pleasant autumn day, last year’s FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai winner allowed Ilonen to edge in front by dumping his tee shot into the water at the short eighth. Then, after Ilonen had birdied the 11th from around ten feet to go two up, a dreadful tee shot by Stenson at the next allowed the Finn to win that as well.
Stenson, never one to give up without a fight, got one back when he rolled in a 20-foot birdie putt at the par-5 13th, only for Ilonen to respond by making 2 at the next with another confident putt. With the Finn bunkered and unable to get up in two at the long 15th, Stenson took advantage by winning that with a birdie but, if he thought that might fluster his opponent, he was in for a disappointment.
Albeit aided by a favourable kick from the bank at the side of the green, Ilonen hit his approach close at the 17th, leaving Stenson to concede after he was unable to convert his birdie attempt from around 20 feet away.
“Henrik is one of the world’s top players, but he didn’t intimidate me at all. We’ve played so much golf together over the years, so I felt quite comfortable playing with him,” observed Ilonen as he savoured a £515,000 pay-day and a victory that has catapulted him inside the world’s top 40. The latter means he’ll be heading to Augusta next April for the first time since he appeared in The Masters as an amateur in 2001.
Having also won the Irish Open in June, Ilonen is up to tenth in the Race to Dubai heading into the four-event “Final Series”. “This is definitely my best season by far,” he added. “Obviously last year was good for me and 2007 was a good year. I’ve had a few of them but if you look at the world rankings, money-list and tournaments I’ve won, obviously this is on top.
“A lot comes with this win. It’s been a goal of mine to be able to get a schedule that you can pick and choose wherever you want to play. I can do that now, so it’s a good situation. I can play the bigger tournaments. I’ve been driving for that for the last couple years. It’s good.”
Gracious in defeat, Stenson admitted he had no complaints about having to settle for a runners-up cheque worth just under £260,000.
“I actually exceeded my expectations for the week,” he said, “When Jonas [Blixt] took me to the 18th yesterday, I felt like we were running low on energy and it was the same against George this morning. I don’t know where I found that energy to finish that match off so I was quite low on energy in the afternoon.
“I feel like I’ve been battling my swing a little bit in these gusting conditions the last day and a half. I didn’t play my best. I was a bit unlucky on a couple of putts but Mikko didn’t make any mistakes really and when he did, he recovered well. The best player won, so all the credit to him for his fine performance this week.”