Denmark’s Thomas Björn completed one of the most outstanding fightbacks in European Tour history when he birdied the final two holes of the rain-delayed Nissan Irish Open at Carton House to capture his ninth Tour title with a five under par total of 283. Björn trailed the field by nine shots after a first round 78 but battled tenaciously to shoot 66, 67, and 72 to triumph against the odds.
The 35 year old Ryder Cup player finished a stroke ahead of England’s Paul Casey and two ahead of local favourite Darren Clarke, whose bogey six at the 18th to Björn’s birdie four cost him the opportunity to become the first Irishman to win that national Open since 1982.
It was a case of redemption for the Dane in a country which had caused him considerable heartache in the past. Three years ago, he lost out in a play-off for the Nissan Irish Open while only last summer he shot a closing 86 to miss out on the Smurfit European Open.
“You could say this country owes me one,” smiled Björn after equalling the highest start by a winner on The European Tour, following American George Burns who also opened with a 78 before going on to win the Kerrygold International in 1975.
He added: “I lost a play-off to Cambo (Michael Campbell) in this event at Portmarnock three years ago and I wanted to put what happened at The K Club behind me.”
In an oblique reference to The Ryder Cup, also at The K Club, he said: “I want to be part of something in this country in September and felt I needed to win early to give myself a chance.
“It was a miracle we played 72 holes this week and a lot of people made some very good decisions to make it happen.”
Torrential rain on Sunday had forced a suspension in play with Clarke leading the tournament by two shots with ten holes remaining. Even though conditions remained ferociously difficult when the field returned at 9.15 on Monday to resume the last round, there was no shortage of drama and excitement.
Björn, winning for the ninth time on The European Tour International Schedule in his 238th start and just over a week since his last success in the British Masters, has never lacked tenacity, and it showed in bitterly unwelcoming conditions.
Even a bogey five at the 16th failed to dampen his unquenchable desire to exorcise those previous distressing finishes on Irish soil. He struck back aggressively with a towering five iron onto the 17th green and converted the 18 foot putt for a birdie two. At the last, level with Casey and the Englishman on the front of the green a long way from the hole, he wedged to seven feet.
Casey, who had come so close at The De Vere Belfry in the previous week’s Quinn Direct British Masters, three putted, as Clarke had done moments earlier. Björn holed and thrust his arms towards the leaden skies and celebrated a job well done.
He added: “After the first round my game came good, and I have to thank Jos (Vanstiphout) for talking me round at a time when I was looking at the flight schedules. Today it was a case of last man standing but I hit a wonderful putt on the 17th and that opened everything up again for me.”
Björn moves from 19th to fourth on The European Tour Order of Merit with €719,956 after collecting the €366,660 first prize. Victory also enabled him to become only the eighth player to break through the €11 million barrier in Official European Tour earnings.
Clarke, seeking to become the first home winner since John O'Leary in 1982, emerged with enormous credit after an incident on the ninth hole, where he resumed his fourth round.
Clarke had pushed his tee shot into heavy rough when play was suspended on Sunday evening, but found the ball in a much better lie following his replacement drop. That gave him the chance to reach the green in two but Clarke insisted on chipping out sideways – his only real option on Sunday night when play was halted - and ended up with a bogey five.
Complimented on his integrity, Clarke said modestly: “That's part and parcel of the game. A lot of people had been looking for the ball and a lot of people had flattened the grass around it. It was a much better lie than whenI left it. I had the opportunity to hit it on to the green, but I felt my conscience wouldn't allow me to do that. So I decided to chip it out like I would have yesterday.”
He added: “Obviously it was very disappointing. I really wanted to win and I’m disappointed to finish bogey, par, bogey.”
For the second week in succession, Casey contended for a title and came up just short. Close, as they say, but no cigar. He commented ruefully: “This week I think was just about grinding it out. It was down to the guy with the best attitude and I certainly gave himself a chance.
“It was no surprise to see guys like Thomas, Padraig, Darren at the top of the leaderboard on the weekend because those are the guys that just never give up. That was the worst five days I've ever played in, in terms of conditions, and it was just a battle from start to finish.
“It's been a long week I think for a lot of guys; really looking forward to Wentworth this week. You know, there will be some tired and weary bodies but we carry on!”