Darren Clarke captured the European Challenge Tour’s inaugural Benmore Developments Northern Ireland Masters at Clandeboye GC, posting a final round 70 to finish on 11 under par 273 and win by two shots from Englishman Stuart Little.
World Number 13 Clarke, who donated his winning cheque of €35,877 to his own Golf Foundation, was delighted to win in his native country and admitted that he felt the pressure coming home on the back nine - where he parred every hole.
“I’m really pleased to have won, because first of all I really wanted to in here in my own country – it meant a lot to me. I didn’t expect to feel as much pressure as I did out there, but I felt it on the back nine.
“I played lovely for the first eight holes today but I just couldn’t buy a putt all day. I kept grinding out chances all day but just could make anything I turned something that was at one stage very comfortable into something very difficult, but it’s not always easy.”
Clarke, whose last win in his home country was at the Ulster PGA Championship in 1992, praised the high standards of the Challenge Tour and pledged to endeavour to return and defend his title next year.
“For me, the tournament was a huge success. The crowds were exceptional and I think the course was magnificently set up – especially the greens that were some of the best I’ve putted on all season.
“I would hope that the tournament, and the Challenge Tour, will be coming back to Northern Ireland, where it can get bigger and better from now on. I’d love to come back here as well, and while I can never know so far in advance what my schedule is going to be like, it would be good to come home and defend the title.”
Jamie Elson took third place after a last day 67 helped him to an eight under par total of 276, with Welshman Sion Bebb, Stephen Browne from Dublin and the two Swedes – Michael Jonzon and Leif Westerberg – tied for fourth on minus seven.
Second placed Little may not have taken the title, but he went a long way to securing his card for the European Tour International Schedule 2004 by scooping the second place prize of €23,908.
That moved the 36 year old to sixth place on the Challenge Tour Rankings having accumulated €65,525 to date.
He said: “It’s been a great week for me – it felt good to be pushing for the title on the final day, and although I was a bit disappointed to have bogeyed the last, this is my highest finish of the season and it could go a long way to helping me secure my card for The European Tour next season.”