Ten years after his breakthrough win on the Challenge Tour, Englishman James Heath stepped out of the golfing wilderness in style by landing the £200,000 SSE Scottish Hydro Challenge with a record-breaking aggregate in Aviemore.
On a day when the leaders set out in glorious sunshine at Macdonald Spey Valley but played the second half of their round in miserable damp conditions, the 33-year-old from Kingston-upon-Thames closed with a solid 68 for a 21-under-par total. That beat Robert Dinwiddie’s 20-under winning total at Macdonald Cardrona in 2007 but was two shots better than the best aggregate in the event’s eight stagings at the Highlands venue, which was set by compatriot Andrew Johnston in 2014. Brooks Koepka won with 18-under the year before.
This tournament, in fact, is a lucky one for raiders from south of the Border. Heath, a one-time Nick Faldo protege, is the third successive English winner while the title has now been claimed by players flying the Cross of St George six times in 11 stagings. “It feels surreal because ten years between my two wins is a long gap and it hasn’t sunk in yet,” said Heath as he savoured a two-shot success over Ryan Fox, son of All Blacks legend Grant, after the New Zealander closed with a joint-best-of-the-day 64 that was sparked by three opening birdies and also included an eagle-3 at the 17th.
One ahead overnight, Heath holed a 30-foot birdie at the 12th to stretch his advantage to three before closing out the victory, which earned him £32,000, with six straight pars. After holing out at the last, Heath was doused with champagne by some of his fellow players. The winner joked that he’d preferred to have been drinking it. He choked back tears as he revealed the triumph had been a welcome boost after a difficult six months. “It’s been a very tough year so far and it was nice to do something like this for the family,” said Heath, referring to his mother having passed away earlier in the year.
It was thanks to another member of his family that he actually made this trip. “I genuinely wasn’t going to play this week,” he admitted. “After making a double-bogey on my 17th hole in the Najeti Open in Saint-Omer last weekend, I’d had enough. But I had a pep talk from my brother, Michael, on Monday, and he gave me some tough love. It was the best thing that could have happened to me, that conversation. I hope to use this as a springboard. It’s just nice to get up there and feel the stomach churning on Saturday and Sunday. When you come through it doesn’t feel much better. It’s been a good few years in the wilderness, no question. But I’m still standing.”
George Murray, the 2010 winner, finished as leading Scot in joint 21st, closing with a 68 for a nine-under-par total to end up two shots ahead of Paul McKechnie, the only other home player from a 28-strong starting contingent to make the cut. “I played well today, leaving a few out there, so I feel more encouraged going into Open qualifying,” said Murray of heading to Gailes Links tomorrow to join the scramble for three spots in the upcoming Claret Jug joust at Royal Troon. Heath is heading to Royal Cinque Ports in Kent for another of the qualifiers.