THAILAND’S Kiradech Aphibarnrat produced a brilliant finish to claim his second European Tour title and break Chinese hearts in the inaugural Shenzhen International yesterday.
Teenager Li Hao-tong looked to have done enough to secure a hugely popular victory on home soil, the 19-year-old emerging from a crowded leaderboard to card a closing 67 to finish 12 under par.
That left overnight leader Aphibarnrat two shots behind with two holes to play, only for the 25-year-old to hole from 18 feet for an eagle on the 17th and then miss from 12 feet for what would have been a winning birdie on the last.
The players returned to the 18th for the play-off and Aphibarnrat completed victory in style, hitting his approach to virtually the same place as he had in regulation and this time holing the birdie putt after Li had missed from long range.
“I have been struggling for a year,” said Aphibarnrat, whose previous win came in the Malaysian Open in 2013. “I lost my coach (Natpasit Chokthanasart, who died in December 2013), I changed my equipment and haven’t been on the top of the leaderboard for a while, but finally I can do it and it was great.
“I had a chance to win in 72 holes but the putt in the play-off is the best putt I have ever made in my life.”
Aphibarnrat had been six shots clear of the field after 16 holes of the third round, but finished double-bogey, bogey to take a two-shot advantage into the final day.
That was wiped out by a fast start by Spain’s Pablo Larrazabal, who carded four birdies and one bogey in his first six holes, with Aphibarnrat also dropping shots on the fifth and seventh.
Birdies on the ninth and tenth took Aphibarnrat back into the lead as Larrazabal fell away, but bogeys on the 12th and 15th opened the door for Li to take over at the top thanks to birdies on the 11th, 13th and 14th.
Another birdie on the 17th made Li odds-on favourite to become the first Chinese winner of a European Tour event on home soil, but the 19-year-old could only watch on television as Aphibarnrat conjured up a brilliant finish.
“It’s been such a tough day today,” Aphibarnrat added. “I didn’t start well like the other days with three or four birdies, I was one over on the front nine and Pablo was playing great to start. He put a lot of pressure on me.
“I tried to play more safe than the first three rounds because the wind was picking up and it was not easy to make birdies. I just tried to hit it on the greens but I was struggling with my putting, everything was too tight and I felt nervous on the front nine.
“Special thanks to my caddie, he was always pushing me.
“When we were two behind on the last two holes he said you have not lost, we have not signed the scorecard yet and he was completely right and I just got the job done.”
England’s Tommy Fleetwood finished a shot outside the play-off after missing from long range for birdie on the 18th in a third consecutive 69, with seven players tied for fourth on ten under.
Li said: “I made a lot of birdies again. But the Thai guy played so well. Congratulations for him.
“This is very good experience and I really enjoyed it. I felt really bad on the pro-am day actually so this week was awesome and hopefully I can play good in the China Open.”