Graeme McDowell expressed his delight at becoming the first Irish winner of the Volvo World Match Play Championship as he joined an illustrious list of champions with a hard-fought victory over Thongchai Jaidee in Bulgaria.
McDowell, runner-up last year to Ryder Cup team-mate Nicolas Colsaerts, only took the lead for the first time in the final on the 14th hole after several vital par saves on the front nine at Thracian Cliffs.
But the top seed then birdied the 15th to move two ahead and sealed a 2 and 1 win on the 17th – his 99th hole of the week – to claim the first prize of £675,000 and a first European Tour title since 2010 to go with his win at the RBC Heritage on the PGA Tour last month.
Arnold Palmer won the first World Match Play event in 1964 and the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Greg Norman and Ernie Els all have their name on the trophy.
“It’s very special,” said McDowell, who moved to the top of the Race to Dubai and should climb from eighth to seventh in the world rankings today.
“We have been talking all week about how prestigious this event is. I can’t say how excited I am to win it and add my name to that list of legends.
“It was not quite the salubrious golf of this morning (when he was eight under in beating Branden Grace 3 and 2 in the semi-final). It was a little more tentative, there was a lot on the line.
“I played strongly coming in and I sensed Thongchai was a little fatigued. I really tried to feed off that and show him I was really up for it. He made his first mistake on the 14th and the 15th has been kind to me all week.”
Jaidee had the consolation of £338,000 as runner-up, but could be forgiven for wondering how he had failed to turn an early advantage into a decisive lead.
Birdies at the second and fourth took the former Thai paratrooper two up, but he missed from eight feet to go further ahead on the next after McDowell had scrambled a par despite taking a penalty drop from an unplayable lie left of the green.
McDowell won the seventh with a birdie to reduce his deficit but was grateful to see Jaidee miss from six feet on the next to win the hole, while McDowell then holed lengthy par putts on the ninth and tenth to stay in touch.
“The par putts on the fifth, ninth and tenth were huge, they were the turning points,” McDowell admitted.
A superb pitch to two feet on the 12th gave McDowell a winning birdie and got him back on level terms, the momentum firmly with the former US Open champion now.
Jaidee pulled his drive into a bush on the 14th and the resulting bogey handed McDowell the lead for the first time, which he increased with a birdie from close range on the 15th.
Jaidee, who had beaten South African Thomas Aiken 3 and 2 in their semi-final, said: “I played very well and only made one mistake on the 14th. I started very well but was a bit tired this afternoon. It’s been a good tournament and second is good enough for me this week.
“Congratulations to McDowell, he is a very good player.”
The event was staged at the the picturesque Black Sea resort of Thracian Cliffs near Kavarna as Bulgaria hosted a Tour event for the first time. Gary Player designed the course and McDowell said: “It’s a magnificent golf course and I hope we gave the Bulgarians a little taste of what we do.”