Johnnie Walker Championship: Fleetwood holds nerve

WE’LL all need tablets to calm us down if the Ryder Cup is as dramatic as this in 13 months’ time.

Tommy Fleetwood with his pet dog Maisy and the Johnnie Walker Championship trophy the young Englishman secured in a three-way play-off. Picture: PA
Tommy Fleetwood with his pet dog Maisy and the Johnnie Walker Championship trophy the young Englishman secured in a three-way play-off. Picture: PA

Eagle finishes from two Scots at the 72nd hole; one of the other title challengers lying flat out on the fairway a couple of times on the back nine requiring physio treatment; and the chance that as many as a dozen players could end up as the winner.

The final round of the Johnnie Walker Championship, the last staging of the event before the PGA Centenary Course hosts the first Ryder Cup in Scotland for more than 40 years, provided terrific entertainment for a splendid 18,200 last-day crowd, even though they were denied a third home champion in this event in the last seven years.

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Englishman Tommy Fleetwood, a likeable young lad who already had a strong affection for the home of golf after winning the Scottish Open Stroke-Play Championship here four years ago, claimed his maiden European Tour title, but only after both Stephen Gallacher and Scott Henry had produced brave bids to follow in the spike marks of 2007 winner Marc Warren and Paul Lawrie, last year’s victor.

On a day when fortunes fluctuated with gay abandon, Gallacher, three behind Fleetwood and Ricardo Gonzalez at the outset, had just edged his nose in front on 17-under - he’d bounced back with an opening bogey to eagle the second and then cover his next eight holes in three-under – when disaster struck at the 11th.

From a sandy divot, the 38-year-old sent his approach flying through the back of the green into a bush, took a penalty drop, fluffed his pitch and eventually put a triple-bogey 7 down on his card. Such was the tightness of the leaderboard, he dropped from first to eighth in one fell swoop.

For the next 90 minutes, it became anyone’s guess who’d eventually come out on top. Argentine Emiliano Grillo emerged from nowhere to set the clubhouse target of 16-under after a best-of-the day target, but there were too many players in contention for that to be the winning score.

Beaten in a play-off by Thomas Bjorn two years ago, it looked at one point as though Austrian Bernd Wiesberger could go one better after he chipped in from 20 feet for an eagle-3 at the 16th to lead on 17-under but, that, too, proved insufficient, as Scott Henry also found out.

Playing in this event for the first time, the 26-year-old from Clydebank had battled back brilliantly form an opening 72 and produced a Tiger Woods-style celebration after coaxing a long curling eagle putt into the hole at the last. It saw the European Tour rookie sign off with splendid efforts of 65, 67 and 67, but his hopes – Wiesberger’s, too – of at least getting into a play-off were soon dashed.

Playing in the penultimate group, Gallacher had shown tremendous courage to claw his way back into the picture with birdies at the 14th and 16th. He split the fairway with his drive at the last and was walking after his approach before it landed on the narrow strip of green. For the second time in the space of about 20 minutes, a huge roar echoed around the green as his 15-foot eagle putt dropped into the hole. But would a closing 67 for an under-par total of 270 be good enough for the man who almost didn’t even make it to the first tee on Thursday after hurting his back washing a car earlier in the week?

Gonzalez, who had a double-bogey 6 at the first after carving his approach into jungle-like territory, birdied three holes out of five around the turn to breath life into his challenge, before what seemed to be a knee problem necessitated him requiring on-course physio treatment.

A birdie at the 16th moved him to 17-under and he was joined on that total by playing partner Fleetwood as the 22-year-old from Southport bounced back in style from a dropped shot at the 15th, where he half-fluffed a chip, by holing a 25-foot eagle putt at the next.

It meant both Fleetwood and Gonzalez, bidding for his fourth European Tour triumph in four years, came to the last needing a birdie to join Gallacher and force a play-off.

Gonzalez hit the hole with his eagle attempt while Fleetwood wasn’t far away either with almost the identical putt as Henry as both did that comfortably. Unlike 2011, when it took five holes to determine a winner in the same position, one visit back up the revamped 18th was sufficient on this occasion.

Following three splendid drives, Fleetwood was the only one to find the dance floor. Gallacher, after splashing out from a green-side bunker, missed from eight feet; Gonzalez from five. From above the hole, Fleetwood saw his first putt trundle three feet past but held his nerve to clinch victory.

“God knows how I even made contact with it,” he admitted of the pressure he felt. “I haven’t even had a top five in the last two years then ... you come out with a win - it is unbelievable.

“It was a bit claustrophobic on the leaderboard. If you dropped a shot, you went down ten places. If you birdied, you moved up ten places. I’ve been so jealous when somebody wins, but finally it’s my turn.”

Asked if he planned to splash out on something special as a reward, the 2011 Challenge Tour winner added: “No, I’m probably the most unmaterialistic person in the world. The money and everything else that goes with this is obviously fantastic, but winning is enough for me.”

As was the case at Murcar, his lucky mascot – the family dog Maisy – was there to see it. “She came to every amateur event I played in Scotland. She was there when I won the Scottish Stroke Play, when I had a picture taken with her and the trophy, and now it’s great to have one with my first European Tour one as well.”

For Gleneagles, it’s now all about that Ryder Cup and, if it comes close to Medinah, then we are in for a treat. But, based on the past four days, when just under 49,000 have turned up, the return of the Johnnie Walker Championship in 2015 is also something to relish.