England’s Matt Haines captured his debut Challenge Tour title in thrilling fashion at the season-ending Apulia San Domenico Grand Final on a dramatic day which saw Spaniard Alvaro Velasco succeed Italian Edoardo Molinari as the winner of the Rankings.
Haines, who only turned professional last year and has relied largely on sponsors’ invitations to compete on the Challenge Tour this season, closed with a round of 66 to edge out overnight leader Daniel Gaunt of Australia by a single stroke and vault to second place in the Rankings behind Velasco.
Other players with cause for celebration were home hero Lorenzo Gagli and experienced Scot Raymond Russell, who with respective finishing positions of joint third and tied 12th barged their way into the all-important top 20 at the expense of Spain’s Carlos Del Moral and England’s Charlie Ford.
Despite opening with a round of 67, Del Moral was ultimately unable to maintain his momentum and composure over the following three days, as his four over par aggregate total saw him drop down to 21st place in the Rankings – an agonising €558 behind Frenchman Alexandre Kaleka in 20th place.
The Spaniard’s despair was in stark contrast to Haines’ joy, as the 20 year old from Kent ended a season which he had begun without a Challenge Tour category clutching a coveted European Tour card in his hand.
Gaunt, who climbed to seventh in the Rankings despite having only played 11 events, had held the lead for large parts of a tense afternoon at San Domenico Golf in Puglia, Italy, but perhaps the turning point came at the par five 15th hole.
Having dissected the fairway with a huge drive and then found the heart of the green with his approach, Haines sunk an eagle putt from 35 feet to join the Australian on eight under par.
After closing with three pars, Haines could only stand and watch as Gaunt, playing in the group behind and needing a birdie three to avoid a play-off, smacked an almighty drive down the 18th fairway.
But a mixture of adrenaline and nerves forced the man from Melbourne to pull his wedge into the bunker at the back left of the green, and when he narrowly failed to get up and down, the title – and a cheque for €51,500 – belonged to Haines.
The rising star, who ended the season with earnings of €107,152, can now look forward to a debut campaign on The European Tour.
He said: “It’s unbelievable really. I feel like I’ve been playing well this year without getting the win, but it’s great to end the season with my first victory when it matters most. The set-up here really suits my game because I like to be aggressive off the tee, and this course allows you to do that. I felt under a little bit of pressure between the 12th and 14th, because there are some tough holes in that little stretch. But then when I made that big eagle putt on the 15th I knew it was probably going to be either me or Daniel winning the title, because everyone else was two or three shots behind. After that I managed to save par on the 17th and 18th with some good scrambling, but I still wasn’t sure it would be enough to win. Luckily it was, and I couldn’t be happier.
“I’ve learnt a lot about my game and myself this season, and now I can’t wait to get onto The European Tour. This year and especially this win will give me a lot of confidence to take into next season, and if I can keep doing what I’ve been doing and playing the way I’ve been playing, I see no reason why I can’t do well. There are obviously a lot of great players on the main Tour, but I’ve got confidence in my own abilities. The top players on the Challenge Tour have shown in recent years that they can make the step up and compete on the main Tour, so hopefully I can keep improving.
“It’s amazing how much my life has changed this year. At the start of the season I was relying on invitations to play, so I have to thank my management company for helping me out and the Challenge Tour for offering them. Hopefully I won’t have to rely on invitations next season because I’ll have a decent category, so with a bit of luck I can keep my card and maybe even go on and win one.”
Similarly, Gaunt is also confident of following the likes of Molinari, Welshman Rhys Davies and the English duo of James Morrison and John Parry in entering the winners’ enclosure on The European Tour the season after graduating from the Challenge Tour.
The Australian only secured his promotion from the Satellite EuroPro Tour to the Challenge Tour half way through the season courtesy of his victory at the English Challenge, since when he has finished in the top ten in exactly half of the tournaments in which he has played.
Gaunt was naturally disappointed to have bogeyed the 18th hole for the second day in succession to miss out by one shot, but was excited at the prospect of returning to the top tier after five years in the golfing wilderness.
He said: “I’m pretty devastated to be honest – I had the perfect yardage for my approach to the 18th, but just pulled it and left myself no chance of getting up and down from the bunker. I had the shot in mind I was trying to hit – I felt comfortable over the shot, but just didn’t execute it. But give credit to Matt, he’s obviously played very well this week, and I don’t think my disappointment will last too long. The goal at the start of the week was to climb into the top ten of the Rankings, and I’ve comfortably achieved that. So whilst I’m obviously disappointed I wasn’t able to see the job through, I’m also excited at the thought of getting back onto the main Tour. I definitely feel my game’s good enough to win out there, but talk’s cheap – I’ve now got to go out there and prove it.”
Velasco has also targeted a maiden European Tour victory after topping the Rankings with earnings of €134,296.
By his own admission the Spaniard’s performance levels this week fell short of the stellar standards he had set this season, as he finished in a tie for 20th place on one over par; but the 29 year old has set the lofty ambition of following Molinari into the top 50 of the Official Golf World Ranking.
He said: “I came here with high expectations, I just didn’t play well enough. But finishing on top of the Rankings is the best achievement of my career so far, and hopefully I can build on it next year. I won in Kazakhstan like Edoardo and now I’ve won the Rankings like him, so it’s an honour to follow such a great player. I’ve obviously still got a long way to go to reach his level, but my goal is to win on The European Tour and climb into the top 50 of the world. The consistency of my all-round game has improved this year, but I still need to keep improving every year if I am to achieve my goals.”
Velasco will be joined on The European Tour by Gagli, whose prospects of securing the top three finish ne needed appeared extremely remote after turning in one over par for the tournament.
But the Italian delighted the home crowds with three birdies and an eagle on the way home to surge through the field and into a share of third place on four under par alongside England’s Lee Slattery, who signed for a round of 69 to secure a return to The European Tour as the 13th graduate.