HE HAD won countless tournaments in his head. This one, in fact, had been wrapped up on three occasions in a sleepless Saturday night.
For the first time in 229 attempts on the European Tour, though, Oliver Wilson finally got the job done where it mattered.
Holding off world No 1 Rory McIlroy, as well as home hope Richie Ramsay and fellow Englishman Tommy Fleetwood, the 34-year-old from Mansfield made his long-awaited breakthrough in style by winning the £3 million Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
On a thrilling final day at St Andrews, a closing 70 for a 17-under-par total of 271 saw Wilson home by a shot from McIlroy (68), Fleetwood (68) and Ramsay (67), the latter having surged into a two-shot lead with three to play before running up costly back-to-back bogeys at the 16th and 17th.
“For my first European Tour win to come at St Andrews is a dream come true,” admitted Wilson, who needed an invitation for the event after losing his European Tour card two years ago and nose-diving to 792nd in the world following a Ryder Cup appearance six years ago.
Runner-up on no fewer than nine times previously, including this event in 2009, he added: “Three or four weeks ago, it was looking pretty grim for my career, so to come to the home of golf, and beat Rory, the best player in the world, is incredible.”
After seeing a three-shot overnight lead disappear in no time on a fairly benign day in the Auld Grey Toun, Wilson edged in front again by nailing a 4-iron to around four feet for a birdie at the 16th. Just as important in the final reckoning, though, was a majestic chip to save par at the 17th following a pulled drive that almost found the second fairway.
“I was up about 3 o’clock this morning so I played around the course in my head and won the tournament three times in my sleep and my thoughts,” he admitted, heaving a huge sigh of relief that it had become reality on this occasion. A whopping cheque for £490,000 was proof of that for a man whose season’s earnings coming here had been £16,500.
Delighted for Wilson, Ramsay is hoping his next win is just around the corner. The Aberdonian looked to have delivered a telling thrust when back-to-back birdies at the 14th and 15th took him two clear of the field. A disappointing chip from the right of the green that led to a bogey at the 16th opened the door for the chasing pack.
Much sorer than that, though, was seeing a par putt agonisingly spin out at the 17th. He dropped to his knees in disbelief then was unable to make the required birdie at the last to force a play-off.
“I hit a great putt that just dived left really hard,” he said. “If that drops and I had made 4 at the last I would have been in with a really good chance of winning.
“I am proud of the way I stuck in. I played really well the whole week. I didn’t get it done, but I gave it 100 per cent. I played to win and if there is one person you would lose to you’re probably glad it is Ollie.”
It was Ramsay’s best finish of the season and fourth top-ten in his last five events.
Despite missing the opening three months of the year due to an ankle injury, he is now up to 35th place in the Race to Dubai and certain to reach the “Final Series”.
“If you gave me this position at the start of the year after having had three months off and a pretty serious injury scare, I’d have taken it,” admitted the Edinburgh-based 31-year-old.
“Your head starts looking at things completely differently and you think about what you would do if you couldn’t play golf because of injury. Things like that do run through your mind.
“That is why today I am not bothered about not winning. It would have been great to win but I played 100 per cent and that is all I could do.”
After dumping his approach at the first into the Swilcan Burn to run up a double-bogey 6, McIlroy responded in typical fashion of late with four straight birdies. He was in a four-way share of the lead with six to play and still in with a chance until he short-sided himself with his approach then putted into the Road Hole bunker and bogeyed the penultimate hole.
“Where I feel like I cost myself the tournament today was probably in the space of about 20 yards,” reflected the four-times major winner after finishing with a birdie to record his third runner-up finish in the event. “At the front of the green at the first and over at the Road Hole bunker. They are the only mistakes that I made all day.”
A cheque for just under £220,000 strengthened McIlroy’s lead in the Race to Dubai. Two sub-par rounds on the Old Course also augur well for his Claret Jug defence there next July, when he’ll be more switched on than yesterday.
“It’s a nice stroll around there,” he said of partnering his dad, Gerry, on his 55th birthday in the team event. “My excitement level didn’t get above about three at any point during the round.”
It was left to Fleetwood, who was unable to convert a makeable birdie putt at the last to force a play-off, to sum up what everyone in golf was feeling as Wilson became a winner at long last. “He’s a lovely guy and I think everybody will be glad to see him back,” said the Lancastrian, a winner in the home of golf himself when he landed the Johnnie Walker Championship last year.
70 Oliver Wilson (Eng) -17
68 Rory McIlroy (NIre) -16
67 Richie Ramsay (Sco) -16
68 Tommy Fleetwood (Eng) -16
66 Christopher Doak (Sco) -15
67 Shane Lowry (Ire) -14
68 Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa) -14
67 Richard Sterne (Rsa) -14
68 Brooks Koepka (USA) -13
70 Chris Wood (Eng) -13