THE east is taking over the West Course at Wentworth. In its first year under Chinese ownership, a Korean produced a final-round masterclass on the Surrey layout to win the BMW PGA Championship.
More than just that, a new star was born as Byeong-Hun An turned the European Tour’s flagship event into a back-nine procession, having taken it by the scruff of the neck with some majestic iron play then sealing victory like a seasoned veteran instead of a first-year rookie.
In closing with a 65, the 23-year-old set a new tournament record total of 21-under-par, won by six shots and, in addition to a £600,000 first prize, walked away with an exemption for this event until 2020 and a free pass into the Open Championship for the next three years.
“My goal was to keep my card for next year, so I wasn’t expecting a win like this,” confessed An, who earned his place at the top table in European golf after finishing third on the Challenge Tour money-list last season, when he finished 25th in the second-tier circuit’s visit to Macdonald Spey Valley in Aviemore.
Having catapulted himself into contention in this event with a 64 on Friday, the 2009 US Amateur champion finished birdie-birdie in the third round to share the lead with Italian Francesco Molinari heading into the final circuit and was soon out in front on his own. A duffed chip cost Molinari an opening bogey and the man who’d had his name at the head of affairs from Thursday then fell two behind as An rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt at the second.
While it was for a par, the new leader described a six-footer at the ninth as “probably my putt of the day” as it kept him ahead of Thailand’s Thongchai Jaidee and provided momentum for the telling thrust that allowed An to become the first Asian to win one of golf’s most coveted titles.
“I was nervous at the start but confident on every hole because I was hitting it well”Byeong-Hun An
A pushed drive left him playing a second shot at the 11th with the ball well above his feet, yet it was despatched to around a foot.
“I could not play it any better – it was perfect,” he said of that effort, which, incredibly, was eclipsed as he then came with a couple of inches from making an albatross 2 at the next with a sweetly-struck 5-iron. “That was my shot of the day,” admitted An, who had actually been aiming for the middle of the green to try and make a birdie but certainly wasn’t grumbling about the bonus that came his way.
All of a sudden, he was four ahead and two more birdies – the one at the 15th was also from close range after another majestic approach, while his equally impressive short-game skills, set up the other gain at the 17th – capped an outstanding display as Jaidee (69) and Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez (67) ended up a distant joint-second at the finish after both had been clinging on to his coat-tails for so long.
“I’ve been playing well all year, but I didn’t know that a win was this close,” said An after tasting victory for the first time since landing the Challenge Tour’s Rolex Trophy last season. “It’s going to be life changing and this is the biggest event on the European Tour and brings a lot of benefits.
“I was nervous at the start of the day but confident on every hole because I was hitting it well and putting nicely and I played really well today. It was great to go into the last hole with a six-shot lead, as was walking off the green knowing that I’ve won an event like this.”
While Rory McIlroy’s early exit was undoubtedly a blow to the organisers, it didn’t end up doing too much harm to an event that attracted a record attendance of 113,000. As well as witnessing an exciting new talent in An, they were entertained by all sorts of spectacular shots, a trend that lasted to almost the bitter death as lanky Englishman Chris Wood plonked his tee shot into the hole at the 14th to win a new BMW i8 worth just over £100,000.
They also had Jimenez there to entertain them and, even at 51, he continues to be a valuable asset to the European game. Fans love him and he loves them. “It’s unbelievable,” he said of a standing ovation at the 18th green after the Spaniard had signed off at the end of an event that had not only seen him get in the last-day mix but also set a new European Tour record when claiming the tenth hole-in-one of his career at the second on Saturday. “They are very knowledgeable about this sport and I enjoy very much coming here to play. I played very well, very solid.”
While that had been an apt description for Molinari’s performance on the opening three rounds, a ragged last-round effort left Molinari signing for a 74 as he finished fifth on 12-under, a shot behind Wood (66). “It wasn’t my day,” said the two-times Ryder Cup player, who now has four top-10s in a row in this event. “I’m disappointed but I’ll come back again next year and try again.”
Wood claimed his flashy prize with a 7-iron and had a seat in it before walking up to the green to pick the ball out of the hole. “It was a cracker,” he said. “I think my caddie [Scot Mark Crane] was more excited than me. It was a bit of a delayed reaction because you hear two cheers, one sounded like it just missed and the second one like it went in.”
With Jimenez having made two aces in just over a week and three this season, it was perhaps a case of some of his luck rubbing off. “I bumped into Miguel last night in the hotel and I said, “Another hole in one, ten now, when is it my turn?”
Second behind McIlroy 12 months ago, ever-improving Irishman Shane Lowry gave another good account of himself, closing with a 69 to finish joint-sixth on this occasion with Tommy Fleetwood. After his fireworks on Saturday, the highlight of which was an albatross at the fourth, Fleetwood fell a bit flat as he closed with a 72 on the day another talented young player made the big breakthrough.