The Irishman holed several tricky putts on the back nine in an enthralling battle of wits with his South African playing partner in the final group at Aa Saint Omer Golf Club.The most important putt of all, however, came at the 18th during regular play when, after Van der Walt sealed a par, Thornton was left with a ten-foot putt to take it to extra holes.
Under the most intense of pressure, the 36 year old rolled it into the cup and clenched his fist in celebration as he signed for a one under par 70 to finish alongside Van der Walt on five under.He kept his cool once again in the play-off, finding the fringe of the green while Van der Walt’s approach landed in a greenside bunker and after the South African’s sand shot fell 12 feet short, Thornton rolled a perfectly-weighted putt from 30 feet which slid just left of the hole but ensured a par.
When Van der Walt’s par putt came up short, Thornton tapped in for the win, before dedicating the victory to his father, who passed away three years ago.“It’s so big for me,” said a tearful Thornton. “On father’s day too, he passed away three years ago and it still hurts, but they are happy tears today. This is dedicated to him.
“I didn’t play particularly well today in perfect conditions but I got up and down when I had to and holed good putts.“I didn’t put myself in position very well so I was scrambling but my short game held up. I've been working hard on my short game for a couple of years now so I'm delighted. I changed my putter and my putting technique last week too so it all came together this week.
“On the last putt – I had been saying to myself all day, if I'm going to make it easy for myself you need to try on every putt and make sure it goes where you want to hit it – so I just picked a line and willed it in and it dropped.”Thornton’s rise is an incredible story of progression to the top of European golf against all odds, as he was a seven handicap golfer just over a decade ago.
Born in Bradford, England, he moved to Ireland to become an Assistant Professional at Royal County Down Golf Club before rising through the Irish professional ranks to the Challenge Tour and then The European Tour.“Hopefully this is a stepping stone for me,” he said. “I’ll go home this week now and celebrate, take a week off, and then play in the Irish Open.
“Last year was a huge disappointment on The European Tour after getting there through the Challenge Tour.“To come here and play like I did is incredible. What happens now with this category is fantastic, it’s mad how things have changed. It’s surreal.”
Van der Walt, meanwhile, was disappointed not to have claimed a first European Tour victory having shared the overnight lead after every round of the week.The George native, however, was extremely optimistic about his game and believes the performance in northern France will spur him on to greater things in the future.
“It’s really disappointing to get so close and not finish it off,” said the 39 year old, who also carded a one under par 70 after entering the final day tied for the lead alongside Thornton and Frenchman Baptiste Chapellan.“I just didn’t chip well today and bad wedge shots cost me a bogey at the fifth and a double-bogey at the eighth, which is unacceptable.
“But the rest of my game is pretty close. I think if I can iron out those little mistakes I can go on to win tournaments by bigger margins and I'm the kind of person who gets motivated by these kind of things so hopefully the door will open again and I can do it with flying colours next time.”Englishman Seve Benson sealed the highest finish of his European Tour career as a one under par 70 left him in outright third place, two shots ahead of his compatriot Robert Dinwiddie whose final round of 70 earned him a fourth-placed finish.