Michael Campbell proved he is back to his best when he birdied the first hole of a sudden-death play-off to beat Thomas Björn and Peter Hedblom and claim the Nissan Irish Open at Portmarnock Golf Club.
All three players finished on 11 under par 277, Hedblom setting the target after shooting a best of the day 68 before Björn and Campbell matched his score with one under par 71s, to set up the eighth sudden-death play-off on The European Tour this season.
After a 45 minute delay as a storm swept over the magnificent Portmarnock links, back they went to the 18th tee where Campbell hit the ideal drive down the left side before producing the shot of the tournament when he almost holed his second shot, firing a magnificent eight iron from 145 yards to a foot to set up a birdie three. Björn’s birdie attempt from 25 feet touched the edge of the hole but stayed out and Hedblom’s putt from a similar distance also refused to drop, leaving Campbell with the shortest of putts to capture his sixth European Tour title and the €300,000 first prize.
It was the second successive year the event required extra holes to settle the matter following Soren Hansen’s victory over Richard Bland, Niclas Fasth and Darren Fichardt last year. In fact, the Nissan Irish Open has had more play-offs than any other tournament in The European Tour International Schedule with extra holes required eight times since 1975.
There was obvious disappointment for both Björn and Hedblom, both players having lost out in play-offs already this year, Hedblom losing out to Kenneth Ferrie in the Canarias Open de España while Padraig Harrington got the better of Björn in the Deutsche Bank – SAP Open TPC of Europe. For Campbell it was an entirely new experience and one in which he relished.
Victory signalled his return to form after struggling for much of the early part of the year in the United States and by winning for a fourth successive season the Kiwi, whose last victory was also in Ireland just a short distance away in the Smurfit European Open at the K Club 13 months ago, became the most prolific winner from New Zealand on The European Tour after edging ahead of Frank Nobilo’s tally of five titles.
“The last 13 months have been a hard road to success through a combination of injury and playing in America,” said Campbell, whose victory was played out in front of his parents who had travelled all the way from New Zealand. Incredibly it was only at the last minute he decided to play in Ireland, deciding he was playing well and should play rather than take a week off.
“I was very, very in control of my emotions out there today,” he said. “I knew I had to make a birdie to win the Nissan Irish Open and I did it. The eight iron on the play-off was the perfect yardage and I hit it to a foot and it was all over.”
Björn can stand proud at the end of what was a very tough week for the Dane after he came so close to winning the Open Golf Championship seven days earlier at Royal St George’s.
Victory was never going to make up for the Open Championship, but the mental fortitude he displayed throughout the week, particularly during a first round 64, showed he is still a force to be reckoned with. “I came here with one thing on my mind and that was to prove I was doing the right things with my golf,” said Björn before the final round. “Nothing will make up for last week until, if, I win a major. But the 64 on Thursday showed me I am doing the right things.”
Hedblom, playing this season on a medical exemption having missed most of 2002 after breaking his leg in December 2001 playing ice hockey, carded the round of the day in the most testing conditions. Three successive birdies from the 14th saw the Swede emerge from the pack before he holed a great clutch putt on the last from 25 feet for par, sinking to his knees as the ball dropped in the hole to remain tied for the lead. He was faced with the same putt in the play-off but could not repeat his heroics.
“It was almost exactly the same putt as I had earlier,” said Hedblom. “A little slower after the rain but I pulled it a little bit and knew straight away I wasn’t going to hole it. Michael hit a great shot in and we needed to make birdie but couldn’t come up with the putt.
“I haven’t been playing that great lately so it is pleasing from that point of view. It is good to be playing well again and next week will be a fun week in Sweden.”
For Nissan in their first year of sponsorship the event was a huge success, culminating in great drama, and Gerard O’Toole, Nissan Ireland Executive Chairman, celebrated the occasion by announcing Nissan Ireland will continue its commitment as title sponsor of the Irish Open.
Making the announcement, O’Toole said: “I am delighted to confirm that Nissan Ireland has committed to the Irish Open for a further two years. The Irish Open is one of Ireland’s premier sporting events and I am particularly proud of my company’s involvement and contribution to this year’s tournament. The event has been a resounding success with large crowds each day. Nissan Ireland is looking forward to working with The European Tour in continuing to bring great golfing events to the Irish public.”