For the fourth week out of five on The 2008 European Tour an unbelievable ending saw a tournament turn on its head. This time it was John Bickerton who profited as Ernie Els’ extraordinary final hole collapse gifted him the Alfred Dunhill Championship.
Most of us thought we had seen it all on the 72nd hole in recent weeks when Ross Fisher faltered to let Phil Mickelson win the HSBC Champions in Shanghai; Robert Karlsson stumbled to allow Miguel Angel Jiménez to claim the UBS Hong Kong Open; and Stuart Appleby stuttered to let compatriot Aaron Baddeley in to win the MasterCard Masters.
But how wrong we were as the denouement of the 2008 Alfred Dunhill Championship topped the lot for shock value, leaving the crowds around the 18th green at Leopard Creek stunned into silence as Els was twice in the water on his way to a triple bogey eight to hand the title and the €158,500 (£113,193) first prize to an astonished Bickerton.
“I had no idea what was going on as I was outside the clubhouse packing up my things,” said the 37 year old Englishman who notched his third European Tour success – following the 2005 Abama Open de Canarias and the 2006 Open de France ALSTOM – his final round 68 for a 13 under par total of 275 good enough for a one shot victory over Els (73) and England’s Lee Slattery (71).
“I have to be honest, disbelief is the main thing I feel right now. But that is golf isn’t it. Sometimes it jumps up and bites you and sometimes it goes for you as it did for me today which obviously I’m delighted about, but I have to say I feel very sorry for Ernie.
“I really didn’t know what was happening at the end. As I said I was packing up my things and wasn’t really sure what Lee was doing but I thought I might have a chance of second on my own which would have been a pretty good week. Then someone came and told me I’d won and, to be honest, I was in shock.”
One can only assume Els felt the same as his dream of becoming only the fourth player – after Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and Nick Faldo – to win a European Tour event outside the Majors and World Championships on four separate occasions, literally sunk on the 541 yard 18th hole.
The three time Major winner – who had begun the day two shots clear of Slattery and four ahead of Bickerton – started well but stumbled in the middle of the final round, pushed drives on the ninth and 11th costing him respective bogey fives while another drive to the right of the fairway on the 13th saw him only notch par there where birdie had been the return in each of the three previous rounds.
However birdies at the 14th and 15th, alongside Slattery’s bogey six at the 14th where he found the water, seemed to have steadied Els’ ship and even though he dropped a shot at the short 16th after his tee shot found the bunker at the back of the green, he still came to the 18th tee with a two shot lead over Bickerton who had moved to 13 under par thanks to a brave birdie three on the 17th.
After his drive found the absolute centre of the fairway, victory seemed assured but suddenly doubts began to appear as, going for the green in two, he pushed his approach shot into the water.
All was not lost however. With a wedge in his hand for his fourth shot, all he needed to do was find the green and two putt for a bogey six and the title would still be his. However, almost beyond comprehension to everyone watching, he was too strong with his pitch and the ball skipped over the back of the green into the water again.
Still all was not lost. With the same wedge in his hand playing six he knew he needed to pitch and putt for a double bogey seven to force a play-off and his approach this time was good, the ball jamming to a halt a mere six feet from the pin. But, with the entire gallery holding their breath, he slipped the putt past the cup to see Bickerton emerge as the most unlikely of champions.
As when Nick Faldo won the Masters Tournament at Augusta National in 1996, much was made of Greg Norman’s final round collapse, and the same will be the case for Els when the 2008 Alfred Dunhill Championship is reviewed.
But one should not forget the part played by Bickerton who played supremely well in the last round for his 68 and especially over the final eight holes which he covered in three under par thanks to birdies at the 11th, 14th and 17th.
Another two players who did themselves proud over the week were Slattery, who finished tied second with Els and young Joost Luiten of The Netherlands, whose superb weekend rounds of 64 and 67 elevated him from the cut line to fourth place outright.
Slattery, who lost his card at the end of the 2007 season by the agonisingly small margin of €77 before winning it back at the Qualifying School Finals last month, had hoped to become the ninth player in the last 14 years to make the Alfred Dunhill Championship their maiden Tour victory and although he battled bravely throughout, it was not to be. Ironically, if he had holed his birdie putt on the 72nd hole, he would have been in a play-off with Bickerton.
Luiten too excelled and when he birdied four holes out of six from the turn to move to 12 under par, he too harboured hopes of his first Tour win. But an overzealous approach to the 17th cost him a bogey five and any real chance, but he took home not only the €49,100 (£35,064) cheque for fourth place, but also a brand new £40,000 Audi TT Roadster Convertible for the hole in one he achieved at the 12th in Saturday’s third round.