Stephen Gallacher finishes strong for Dubai win

Stephen Gallacher recovered from an iffy start to defend his title. Picture: Getty
Stephen Gallacher recovered from an iffy start to defend his title. Picture: Getty
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TALK about having to make history the hard way. First, he had to share the same stage with Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy for two days then go head-to-head with the latter once more in the final round.

As was the case 12 months ago, Stephen Gallacher again saw his overnight advantage, two shots on this occasion, ­disappear early on after a shaky start but he doesn’t come alive until the back nine on the Majlis Course at the Emirates.

He covered that stretch in a stunning 28 shots on Saturday to catapult himself into the lead in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. A different player once again to the one who’d gone out in ­four-over, he came home in 33, four-under, this time.

A level-par 72 to finish for a 16-under-par total of 272 saw him crowned as champion again – the first player to achieve that feat in the event’s 25-year history – by a shot from Argentine Emiliano Grillo.

On a day when 18 players were within two shots of the lead just after the turn, Grillo got lucky when his approach at the last cannoned back off the grandstand on to the green. There was nothing fortuitous, though, about the putt he drained from 40 feet to set the clubhouse target.

With three holes to play, it left Gallacher a shot behind and needing a strong finish. Twelve months ago, he holed his ­approach at the 16th for an eagle to shake off the stuffy South ­African Richard Sterne.

A birdie, set up by another fine approach there to six feet, was just as timely this time around. So, too, was another one at the 17th, where, with $2.5 million (£1.5m) on offer for a hole-in-one, he went for the green.

From the rough just short, he produced an exquisite pitch for a tap-in 3. It meant he stepped on to the final tee needing a par to do the Dubai double. While his drive found the fairway, it wasn’t his Sunday best and left him with a dilemma.

After walking forward and seeing on the giant scoreboard that he didn’t need to take on the water, he decided to lay up and left himself with the perfect distance. His wedge shot landed just behind the flag but spun back viciously and just put on the brakes in time to stop going into the drink.

His first putt was three-feet short but there was no danger of the next one missing.

The little fist-pump showed what winning here again, in an event featuring all the event’s former champions with the exception of the late Seve Ballesteros, meant. Daughter Ellie was in tears as she ran on to the green to embrace him; son Jack was right behind and settled for a high-five. It was a day when a small army of fans following Gallacher had gone through the wringer, but the cocktail of tears and smiles at the end said it all.

“What a day – I never do anything easy, I’m afraid,” said the champion as he sat beside the stunning winner’s silver coffee pot for the second year running. “My emotions are gone right now.

“I never really played the front nine that well all week. It was a carbon copy of yesterday apart from I holed a couple of putts for par and got a bit lucky yesterday whereas today I was in bushes and trees and stuff.”

A stray one to start – he fought a pull throughout the front nine – left him playing out sideways; an even wilder one at the second was 40 yards off line and led to him going about 60 yards backwards to take a penalty drop on to the waste area.

His overnight cushion was gone after just two holes; he could easily have been behind by that point if McIlroy had been able to convert two early birdie opportunities then one at the third, too.

After chipping in at the eighth, American Brooks Koepka topped the leaderboard on 14-under. When Gallacher dropped his fourth shot of the day at the same hole, he was suddenly two off the pace. The clubhouse target had been set by Finn Mikko Ilonen after the former amateur champion came in with a 66 for 13-under. When Koepka started to falter and McIlroy, too – the two-times major champion ran up ugly 6s at the tenth and 13th, both par-5s and finished a disappointing joint-ninth on 11-under – it started to look as though Ilonen might, at the least, get into a play-off.

Frenchman Romain Wattel, the 2010 Scottish Stroke-Play champion, was the first to nose ahead of Ilonen after he ­birdied the last two in a six-under 66. Then Grillo, a 21-year-old who finished sixth in the Johnnie Walker Championship at ­Gleneagles last year, came up with his spectacular finish to leave Gallacher with work to do over that closing stretch.

“I just kept saying to myself, you know, stay patient,” reflected the 39-year-old of that situation. “I’d played the back nine well (he was 17-under for that stretch compared to one-over going out) and no-one was really running away with it at the time.

“I think the key was I holed a putt on 11 for birdie. I was disappointed not to birdie ten and then I looked at the leaderboard and I was tied for the lead with seven to go and I thought, ‘wow, that’s not a bad spot to be in considering’. It was almost starting from fresh from there.”

Fittingly, it was at the 13th where Gallacher regained the lead. He had two eagles there last year and one more on Saturday. A majestic drive set up another chance of a 3 but a birdie did just fine, especially as McIlroy was imploding around that time.

Missing the green left at the par-3 15th left Gallacher in the sand. But, after splashing up to around ten feet, he salvaged par. When that dropped, you almost felt the writing was on the wall for Grillo and Koepka, the only other player to reach the last still in with a chance but failed to ­secure the eagle he needed, and so it proved.

“There were so many similarities to last year, it was unbelievable,” confessed Gallacher after becoming the first Scot to ­defend a European Tour title since Colin Montgomerie chalked up the middle of three PGA Championship wins at Wentworth in 1999.

“It rained the last round, I lead going in, was pretty similar to the Saturday I had last year and getting off to the same start and then having to rally on the back nine.

“I just kept on saying to myself, ‘you can play the back nine good’ and nobody was racing ahead.

“That was the key. If somebody came out of the traps quick and got off to a bad start it would have been maybe a bit different.”

It may have been anyone’s to win at one point but, in the end, this tournament once again got a deserved winner.