Lanner returns to scene of triumph

3/19/2010 3:02:38 PM
Mats Lanner is living proof that sometimes miracles do happen in golf. Prior to last year’s Madeira Island Open, Lanner, one of the Swedish pioneers on the European Tour, was dejected by a seemingly futile struggle to try to regain his card.

After 17 years on Tour he could see no light at the end of a dark tunnel which had led to him losing his playing privileges by finishing 121st on the Volvo Order of Merit in 1996 and 196th the following year.

He had tried the Challenge Tour without much success and reached an agreement with his inner self that if he did not make any progress in 1998 he would quit tournament golf.

Still, he could compete in the Madeira Island Open at Santo da Serra, courtesy of a tournament victory on the sunshine Portuguese island in 1994. From that moment, a genuinely moving story unfolded.

Out of the blue, the 38-year-old found inspiration, rediscovered his zest for golf and conjured up one of the year’s fairy tale stories by winning the Madeira Island Open for a second time.

It was a hugely popular triumph. Lanner went on to collect £113,023 during the 1998 season, finished 59th on the Volvo Order of Merit and, in the space of a week, was reminded of how fickle but fantastic this infuriatingly compelling game can be.

Lanner recalled: "Before Madeira I was not on good terms with myself. I had lost my card in 1996 and relied on invites and playing the Challenge Tour. I played badly in 1997 so in 1998 I decided to concentrate on the Challenge Tour and play two regular ones - The Compaq European Grand Prix at Slaley Hall and the Madeira Island Open.

"It seemed nothing could go right for me. Slaley Hall was rained off after I had made a very encouraging start, so I went to Madeira feeling frustrated but at least knowing the game wasn’t in a terribly bad state."

The Swede, who played in the winning Alfred Dunhill Cup side in 1991, four years after a breakthrough success in the Epson Grand Prix, held off New Zealander Stephen Scahill to win the Madeira Island title by a single shot.

Lanner was choked afterwards as the consequences of his victory sank in. He said: "Yes, I was very emotional. I had spent 17 years on the Tour and I basically said to myself unless I saw some improvement in 1998 that I would call it a day and do something else.

"To hang in there on the last day and come up the 18th one ahead and to finish it off was obviously very satisfying. My sweetest moment in golf."

He added: "In 1997 I was struggling a bit but early in 1998 I changed my game plan and tried to play more simple and not make things too complicated. The last couple of weeks before Slaley and Madeira I started playing better. I shot 69 at Slaley Hall before it was rained off. It was coming back.

"Basically, in 1998, even if I hadn’t had any great starts I might have got my card back through Challenge Tour. But doing it in one week is the best way to do it."

Lanner faces some stiff competition this week over the picturesque but undulating Santo da Serra course.

Costantino Rocca, currently 91st on the Volvo Order of Merit, is playing in a bid to recapture the form which carried him into the European Ryder Cup sides in 1993, 95 and 97.

Europe’s Ryder Cup captain, Mark James, the first winner in Madeira in 1993, is also in the strong field along with three of this season’s tournament champions, David Howell, Paul Lawrie and Van Phillips.

Also seeking valuable Ryder Cup points are Alex Cejka (sixth in the points table), Andrew Coltart (ninth), 1998 Challenge Tour graduate John Bickerton (13th) and Paul McGinley (15th).

The Santo da Serra course was redesigned by Robert Trent Jones on a site where a nine-hole lay-out had existed since 1937. Opened in 1991, it is perched 2,300 feet above sea level and ranks among the most spectacularly scenic venues on the European Tour.

Pine, mimosa and eucalyptus trees and exotic flowering shrubs add to the beauty of the steeply undulating course, which also boasts challenging greens.

Lanner said: "The course is on top of a hill and that’s a key factor. If it is windy, the par five third and the fourth - a par three - are tricky. It’s hard to hit the greens never mind make birdie.

"The key is not to make stupid mistakes due to the wind coming up from the ravine. That makes it hard to judge. The greens are tough, sloped, with a lot of breaks and hard to read. To win, you must play solid."