The key talking points following a dramatic week in southern Spain.
Sergio Garcia was the homecoming hero at Real Club Valderrama yet again, winning his sixth title in Spain and his second at the famous course. A final day duel with Joost Luiten ended in the Masters Champion's favour and capped off a superb week for the Spaniard.
After a memorable week in Spain, we look back on the five key talking points, including the dramatic bid to hold onto tour cards.
Even before Sergio Garcia lifted the trophy on Sunday, the signs were all pointing in the right direction for the Spaniard. Garcia’s foundation hosted the event in southern Spain, meaning the reigning Masters Champion had more to keep him occupied than just thoughts of a second consecutive Andalucía Valderrama Masters title. With the tournament already in full swing, Garcia was awarded Honorary Life Membership on Friday, a testament to his contribution to the tour. As he showed at Augusta National in April, however, Garcia has the mind-set to get the job done amid potential distraction.
He held the outright 54-hole lead and his grip rarely loosened on Sunday, even when Joost Luiten began to show why he finished second at Valderrama at last year’s Open de España. A birdie on 17 proved the difference and meant Garcia celebrated his 14th European Tour title. His phenomenal record at Valderrama, including three runner-up spots and two victories, has another chapter and it comes in a year he is unlikely to forget.
Joost in the mix again
Whether Valderrama is at its fiercest or slightly more forgiving, Luiten has proved he can seriously contend on one of the European Tour’s firmest tests. The Dutchman was second to Andrew Johnston at the Open de España last year, when Johnston triumphed with a score of one over par. Valderrama’s claws were a little less sharp this time around, with Luiten finishing just one back of Garcia’s 12 under par winning total. Nevertheless, he seems to have an eye for the alluring, if challenging, track that hosted The Ryder Cup 20 years ago.
Luiten had not had a top ten since the Lyoness Open powered by ORGANIC in June, but rose to the challenge admirably against the home favourite. The five-time tour winner put in a ball-striking masterclass and topped it off with an albatross on the par five 11th on Friday. It all bodes well heading into the final Rolex Series events of the season.
Opportunity knocked at Valderrama
It’s not hard to understand why Valderrama was seen as an ideal site for the first Ryder Cup to be held in mainland Europe in 1997. The picturesque course located deep in Andalucia can be a relentless test of a golfer’s nerve and imagination. So it proved again last week, but there’s no doubt the course was a little kinder than it had been in previous tournaments held there. Before the week started, the average score at Valderrama since 1999 was 73.31. In fact, only last year the scoring average for the week was 75.6, the highest of any tour event, including Major Championships.
Valderrama was a slightly softer touch this time around, with 17 players finishing under par compared to none last year. Perhaps the most poignant statistic is that Luiten’s aggregate score of 273 would have been enough to have conquered Valderrama in the previous 21 tour events held at the course. The increase in birdie opportunities certainly did the Garcia-Luiten narrative on Sunday no harm at all.
Donaldson makes his case
Almost exactly three years ago, Jamie Donaldson was revelling in what was considered by many to be the defining shot of The 2014 Ryder Cup. In his Sunday singles match with Keegan Bradley, the Welshman stiffed an approach that all but confirmed Europe’s successful defence of the Samuel Ryder trophy. In Spain last week, Donaldson was involved in the type of final day drama that he would have much rather have avoided.
Needing a strong week to keep his tour card, he rallied when it mattered most to climb inside the all-important top 101 to 99th. If Donaldson was feeling the nerves, it did not show as he strode around Valderrama laughing and engaging with a crowd very much on side. A five under par total was enough to guarantee a fourth placed finish and seal his playing privileges for next season.
Making your way onto the European Tour is never easy, particularly with such experienced fields and the extensive travelling around most of the world’s continents. A congratulations is in order, then, to those rookies who made the grade in a big way this season. Six of last year’s Challenge Tour graduates excelled to keep their cards and can begin planning for another year out on tour.
Perhaps nobody made more of an impact than Jordan Smith, who claimed two Challenge Tour wins in 2016 before joining the top ranks. He made a serious statement of intent at the BMW SA Open hosted by the City of Ekurhuleni in January, finishing third to Graeme Storm and Rory McIlroy, and it came as little surprise when he won his first title at the Porsche European Open a few months later. Credit should go to the other Challenge Tour graduates who made the grade this year – Ryan Fox, Alexander Björk, Dylan Frittelli (a winner in Austria), Matthieu Pavon and Thomas Detry.
Matt Wallace and Austin Connelly also impressed in their first years out on tour, with Wallace another to claim a title in his first season at the Open de Portugal. The future is bright. Very bright.