Irish eyes were smiling once again for Darren Clarke when he claimed an emotional victory with a heroic final-hole birdie at the BMW Asian Open.
The Ulsterman drained a 40 foot putt on the 18th hole to beat a gallant Robert-Jan Derksen of The Netherlands by one shot and win his first European Tour title in nearly five years at Tomson Shanghai Pudong Golf Club.
It marked a welcome return to the winners’ circle for Clarke, who has endured a difficult past few years following the death of his wife Heather through cancer in 2006 and a subsequent dip in form.
Clarke carded a final round of one over par 73 in tough conditions for an eight under par 280 aggregate to secure his 11th career victory on The European Tour and his first since the 2003 WGC – NEC Invitational.
England’s Robert Dinwiddie secured his highest finish since graduating from the Challenge Tour last season after a round of 74 put him in a share of third place alongside Italy’s Francesco Molinari and Chinese Taipei’s Lin Wen-tang, who holed a 25-foot birdie on the 18th to finish as the top Asian in the event sanctioned by The European Tour, Asian Tour and China Golf Association.
But they were mere bit players as a dramatic final afternoon unfolded in China. Clarke looked to have it won before dropping shots at the 16th and 17th put him level with the Dutchman playing the final hole. Derksen’s second from the fairway bunker bounced over the back but he played a sublime chip for a tap-in par. But Clarke was not to be denied and rammed home a 40 foot putt to claim the title.
“This one is very special,” said a jubilant Clarke. “This is the toughest one of all of them and it’s nice to get back up to where I feel my golf should be. It’s nice to win again and it’s a really, really good feeling.”
“It was always going to be a difficult hurdle for me to get back into the winners’ circle after Heather had passed away,” he continued. “My mind started going forward from the 14th onwards, I lost my concentration and started thinking about Heather and the boys and in this game unless you keep your concentration for the whole way you make mistakes. That’s what I did. But on the last green I gathered myself and said hit a good putt. Luckily I did and it went in.”
Asked where this victory stood alongside his other worldwide titles, he replied: “This is the very top. I have been working harder than I have ever worked on all aspects of my game, putting in nine, ten 11 hour days and it is nice to see it pay off. My game has been good and this is a big mental hurdle I have crossed today.
“It is a really nice feeling to get back in the winners’ enclosure, not to prove anything but to show their support meant an awful lot to me.”
In what is his maiden visit to China, Clarke, the third round leader, dropped a bogey on the third before recovering with birdies on the fifth and tenth to stay in front of playing partner Derksen.
But three bogeys over a four-hole stretch from the 14th opened the door for Derksen but Clarke had the final say and holed his winning putt which looked as if he had help from the golfing gods.
“Sometimes things are meant to happen, sometimes not. I guess today was my day,” said Clarke.
“I was thinking of getting it to the hole (on the 18th) and I wasn’t going to lag it up. I putted nicely this week, and wanted to give myself a chance on the last and I hit a solid putt. It was tracking six foot out and sometimes it’s meant to go in. My boys Tyrone and Conor would have liked that putt more than I did.”
Derksen fought bravely, coming back from being two shots behind with four holes remaining to draw level with some solid putting. But he could only watch in amazement when Clarke rammed home his final putt in front of a rapturous crowd.
“Darren holed a good putt and today is his day, his luck I guess,” said Derksen, who was chasing a third career victory.
“I was actually quite lucky to draw level after the 17th. My up and down (for par) on the last was very good and as it was a very difficult chip. You always think that it (Clarke’s putt) can go in. I saw the speed and if it goes by, it’ll be four foot past but it went in, end of story,” added the Dutchman
Derksen fell victim to the par three 14th once again, dropping a costly double bogey after sending a chip into the water to fall two behind. But it wasn’t smooth sailing for Clarke as he stuttered home which kept Derksen in the title race.
“I had a bad lie on the 14th and it was a difficult shot. I just hit it and made five in the end. It’s not been my best hole. It was a great match though. He’s a great winner,” said Derksen.
Liang Wen-chong finished as the highest placed Chinese player in a share of 14th after closing with a 73 for a 288 total. Amateur Hu Mu closed with a disappointing 79 for tied 35th place while Zhang Lian-wei also carded a 79 for tied 46th place.