ANDREW Johnston, a big basketball fan, jumped through hoops from start to finish on Speyside to claim the biggest win of his career in the £200,000 Scottish Hydro Challenge.
Two shots clear at the start of the final day at Macdonald Spey Valley in Aviemore, the 23-year-old Londoner looked a winner from the moment he holed his approach at the par-4 second for an eagle.
It helped set up a closing 66 for a 19-under-par total – the same American Brooks Koepka won with here 12 months ago – and a three-shot victory over German Moritz Lampert and Australian Terry Pilkadaris as they signed off with matching 67s.
The champagne Johnston planned to sip in celebration -– he picked up £32,000 – was also won in the home of golf. For a hole-in-one during the 2012 Scottish Open, he received 168 bottles of bubbly – one for every yard of the 11th at Castle Stuart. “I’ve got one case left, having given a lot of it to family and charity – and now I’ve got the special occasion I was keeping it for,” he beamed.
Bidding to emulate Koepka by securing promotion to the European Tour with a third title triumph of the season, Lampert saw that dream disappear on this occasion after dropping three shots in the first five holes.
However, given that the 22-year-old from Hoffenheim bounced back to roar home in 29, picking up seven birdies in eight holes, there seems little doubt that his step up has merely been delayed.
He described Johnston, his playing partner, as a “deserved winner” and no-one could argue with that assertion. Having been out for five months with a shoulder injury last season, the Englishman has put in a power of work to get his career back on track, hence the emotion that was evident as he collected the trophy. “I played really consistently all week,” said Johnston, whose nickname is “Beef”. “I wanted to get off to a good start and the eagle at the second settled me down. Mo [Lampert] then gave me a hard time on the back nine as he made birdie after birdie and I didn’t like that. It’s nice to win here as I’m quarter Scottish – and quarter Jamaican, too.”
When the early starters set out, conditions were perfect. Heavy overnight rain had taken some bounce out of the course and, on top of that, there was little or no wind. Englishman Sam Hutsby was the first to take advantage, charging to the turn in 29, six-under-par. Three more birdies in the final six holes for a 63 – the best of the week – rounded off a good morning’s work for the former Walker Cup player. “I had blown myself out of things yesterday with a 74 so had nothing to lose and was able to be more aggressive,” said Hutsby, who lost to Matteo Manassero in the final of the Amateur Championship at Formby. “My birdies at the first three holes were all from two or three feet but I holed one from 40-50 feet – my longest of the week – at the eighth.”
His effort was soon matched by Welshman Stephen Dodd. Playing here on an invitation, the former World Cup winner signed for nine birdies, six of which came on the front nine. “I played better today and it was a nice way to finish,” said Dodd. “I hit it pretty straight all day, gave myself plenty of chances and managed to take a decent amount of them.”
With the leading 17 players overnight covered by just five shots, those efforts hinted it could have been a day when someone came hurtling out of the pack and, briefly, Greig Hutcheon raised hopes of a home triumph. Two birdies in the first three holes moved him to 12-under and two off the pace, but Johnston wasted no time showing he had no intention of being budged from pole position.
He did so spectacularly, too, by holing a wedge from 83 yards for that eagle-2 at the second. After backing it up with birdies at the eighth and ninth, he was out in 31 and, on 18-under, turned for home with a four-shot cushion. It became five after he’d birdied both the 13th and 14th and not even a lost ball off a drive that was “miles right” at the 17th threatened to halt his victory march.
The triumph moved Johnston to third on the money-list – a spot behind Lampert. “I was quite nervous today because I knew what I was playing for,” admitted the German. “But I’ve now got enough money to secure my step up to the European Tour and that is good enough for the moment.”
In the end, it proved a frustrating final day for Hutcheon. His compatriot, Paul McKechnie, too. They both ended up on ten-under – tied for 20th – with McKechnie claiming the prize for top Scot – the Douglas Lowe Memorial Trophy – by virtue of his closing 70 being one better than Hutcheon’s final salvo.
“I played really well again and give myself a lot of looks at the hole but either lipped out or left putts an inch short seven or eight times,” groaned McKechnie, who now turns his attention to Open Final Qualifying at Glasgow Gailes tomorrow.
Hutcheon, who also joining the scramble for just three spots at Royal Liverpool, said his closing effort had been a “bore”. He added: “I got off to a good start but it just never happened at all after that.”