Mikko Korhonen became the first Finnish winner in the history of The European Tour Qualifying School Final Stage after another dramatic finale at the six-round marathon of golf, where 27 players from 12 different countries earned their cards for The 2015 Race to Dubai.
Myriad dreams were made and many more were dashed at PGA Catalunya Resort as one of the most intense events in golf reached a gripping conclusion, both at the top of the leaderboard and further down on the all-important card cut-line.
At the summit, a breathless battle unfolded in the final group as 17 year old hotshot and overnight leader Renato Paratore attempted to fend off the challenge of his much more experienced playing partners, Ricardo Gonzalez and Korhonen, on the sun-drenched fairways of the picturesque Stadium Course at the stunning European Tour Destination outside Girona.
While Paratore came out of the blocks quickly with a birdie at the second, Korhonen drew level with the two-time Junior Ryder Cup player courtesy of an eagle at the par five seventh before a birdie at the 12th meant he took to the front for the first time.
The 34 year old negotiated the next six holes in level par and, while Paratore fell back after a difficult finish, with three bogeys in the final five holes, Gonzalez birdied four of the last six holes.
That wasn’t enough to deny Korhonen his maiden professional victory, however, as he finished two shots clear of the Argentinian on 20 under par courtesy of a five under par final round 67.
“It feels fantastic,” said Korhonen, whose win means he has qualified from Qualifying School for a third year running. “It’s the first win of my professional career, finally. I haven’t challenged for the win very often in my career but it feels absolutely amazing.
“Of course, being first of all the guys here gets me into more tournaments so that’s good, but it’s not like any other tournament. You don’t exactly come here to win, even if you should, you just come to get your card. But victory makes it sweeter.
“I was a bit nervous even coming in knowing I had my card. This is my fourth time coming through Q-School and I’m confident now I can stay on tour next season. Getting my first win, even if it is Q-School, is still important for me.
“I wasn’t too nervous and that was a surprise for me. I did think about Mikko (Ilonen) today when I was on the first tee. I just thought, ‘be like Mikko’, just walk on the course like an Iceman and do your stuff.”
While Gonzalez was disappointed to miss out on outright victory, he was over the moon with his achievement and ranked it alongside the four European Tour titles he has amassed in a long and fruitful career on the top tier.
“This is right up there with winning on The European Tour,” said the Rosario player, who signed for a final round 67 and an 18 under total. “You need to be patient and keep yourself happy, and that happened this week. I said to my caddie that I needed to enjoy the week, and I’m very happy now.
“I felt the pressure at the start as I thought I’d lost my career. I’m 45 years old, so to earn one more year, it’s a big achievement.”
Hearts were in mouths in a tense final hour for those on the bubble as the cut-line shifted back and forth several times, from seven to eight under par.
When the axe eventually fell on the lower number, Frenchman Cyril Bouniol emerged as one of the most heart-warming stories of the day as he followed a bogey at the 16th and a double-bogey at the 17th with a nerveless birdie at the last to make it on the mark.
“The 18th was a dream come true,” said the 27 year old, who finished 19th in the Challenge Tour Rankings this year. “I’ve been playing my heart out all year just to get on The European Tour, and it was slipping away tournament after tournament, so I’m just glad to have walked onto the 18th and just believed in myself.
“I said to myself, ‘You’re good, this has to happen at some point, so make that birdie! It’s all the more meaningful to do that under so much adversity, and having not made a putt all day.
“I was standing over it at the 18th and I knew what it was for – either I would be on Tour or I would be back to what I’ve done all year, so I told myself to take a chance and it’s incredible it went in. I’m so happy.”
Paratore, meanwhile, became the third youngest player in the history of the Qualifying School to earn a card and, while he could not hold out for the victory, he was delighted to earn a rookie season in The Race to Dubai, where he will join his close friend and four-time European Tour winner Matteo Manassero.
“It would have been nice to have won but the card is like winning for me,” said the 2014 Youth Olympic individual gold medal winner, who carded a one over 73. “I’m really looking forward to playing in all of the big tournaments with the best players. I can’t believe it’s happened so quickly.
“It would be great to follow in Matteo’s footsteps. Seeing what he has done at such a young age on The European Tour has been a real inspiration and I hope I can do the same.”
Matthew Fitzpatrick of England was another young former amateur star to seal his place in the big time on the first time of asking, while World Number 75 Anirban Lahiri of India will also play his maiden season on The Race to Dubai.