SOUTH Africa’s Branden Grace became the first player to successfully defend the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters as Paul Lawrie’s challenge faded away – and admitted it was a dream come true.
Grace began the final round two shots behind former Open champion Lawrie, who was seeking his third victory at Doha Golf Club.
However, while Lawrie slumped to a closing 78, Grace carded four birdies and one bogey in a closing 69 to finish 14 under par, two shots ahead of Denmark’s Thorbjorn Olesen and Spain’s Rafael Cabrera-Bello.
“It’s great. I’m pretty much at a loss for words,” Grace said after securing his seventh European Tour title since 2012. “It’s a big thing to come to a week defending. You’ve got a lot more pressure and a lot more things going on that week.
“But to get the first proper defence under the belt is something great, something I’ve been dreaming of. There’s no better place to do it than Qatar. This was really one of my biggest wins to date last year and set me up for a great 2015. Hopefully I can do the same again.”
Grace will remain 11th in the world rankings despite his win, but he has now closed to within 0.1 points of 10th place after a superb display in the windy conditions, dropping just one shot in the last 36 holes.
“I’m knocking, I’m very close,” added the 27-year-old, who finished third in the US PGA Championship and fourth in the US Open last year, as well as recording a perfect 5-0 record in the Presidents Cup.
“Winning tournaments is the priority. If you can take care of tournaments and try to win or finish at the top, you’ll move up in the world rankings eventually.
“Top ten has been a long-time goal for me so if I can get in there, then that’s great.
“I believe it’s going to happen, whether it’s maybe after this week or after the next tournament I play. I’ve given myself the chance of getting that and I feel that the type of golf that I’m playing at the moment, that it’s not far off.”
Grace, who had not finished outside the top eight in his previous four tournaments, matched Lawrie’s birdie on the first before the Scot dropped a shot on the second after his wayward drive ended up on the edge of a small bush.
Both players dropped shots on the fifth after failing to get up and down from over the green in the windy conditions, allowing Olesen to join Lawrie in the lead after his birdie on the previous hole.
Grace holed from 25 feet on the sixth to make it a three-way tie and after Olesen dropped back with a bogey on the eighth, Lawrie also slipped out of the lead on the ninth.
The 47-year-old hooked his drive into the desert scrub and found the water on the other side of the fairway with his attempted recovery, eventually carding a double-bogey seven.
Grace moved two shots clear with a birdie on the 10th and maintained that advantage until Cabrera-Bello, who had taken a costly double bogey on the eighth, birdied the last three holes, the 31-year-old missing an eagle putt on the 18th to tie for the lead.
Wales’ Bradley Dredge and the English duo of Lee Slattery and Andrew Johnston shared fourth place on 11 under, with Lawrie slipping to a tie for 13th.
Lawrie, who had dropped just two shots in the first 54 holes before carding four bogeys and two double bogeys in the final round, tweeted: “Hit it poor putted awful got unlucky a few times and head up my a*** not a good combination.”
On the PGA Tour, three straight bogeys by Phil Mickelson saw him miss the halfway cut at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines as American Gary Woodland and South Korea’s KJ Choi lead on nine under par.
But at least disappointed Mickelson was in good company as defending champion and world No 2 Jason Day also failed to make it in California.