Despite racing out of the blocks during the opening day of the Volvo World Match Play Championship, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castaño had to resist a stirring fight-back from Jamie Donaldson to claim victory on the final green in the first of the group stage matches in Bulgaria.
Having struck the opening tee shot of what is the 48th edition of the World Match Play – the longest-running individual match play tournament in golf – the Spaniard and Welshman shared the spoils over the first two holes before a red-hot putter helped Fernandez-Castaño to four birdies in the next six.
With conditions perfect at the stunning Thracian Cliffs Golf & Beach Resort in Kavarna as wall-to-wall sunshine bathed the Black Sea coastal layout, Fernandez-Castaño holed a lengthy birdie putt at the fifth before an incredible 70-foot effort dropped at the stunning downhill par three eighth hole to put the Madrid man four up and seemingly in firm control of the tie.
Donaldson battled back to two down over the back nine, though, and a fine piece of recovery – that included a left-handed shot from the cart path – and a pin-point seven iron approach led to a birdie at the long 16th that put the 37 year old back within one as Fernandez-Castaño’s own short birdie putt slipped by.
After sharing pars at the short 17th, the match ended with some of the highest quality golf seen on Thursday as Donaldson, needing a win at the last to claim the half and a point, fired in another stunning seven iron approach to six feet before Fernandez-Castaño incredibly went two feet closer and a half in birdies meant victory for the Spaniard.
“I’m very relieved, especially the way things happened,” said Fernandez-Castaño, who takes two points for his first-day triumph and will play European Tour form-man Brett Rumford on Friday afternoon in his second clash in the Gary Player group.
“I was four up after eighth holes, and all of a sudden the advantage was just one going down the last. But Jamie did a great job, he hung in there and fought to the end and it was a very nice match.
“But I'm really happy, especially the way I played the last couple of holes. I holed two important putts on 17 and 18, so we have to take the positives.
“I was feeling the pressure on last two holes, especially after the little miss on 16, and I lost concentration.
“One of the key things in match play is you always have to respect your opponent that he's going to hit the best possible shot and I never thought he was going to make a birdie on 16 then all of a sudden I was facing a three feet putt to halve the hole instead of winning it. So hopefully I've learned for tomorrow!”
Donaldson, meanwhile, said that despite succumbing to defeat, the contest was of such quality and entertainment value that he could still take a great deal of pleasure from the day.
“It was awesome! I played so well coming in that you have to enjoy it,” said Donaldson, who won his second European Tour title in fine fashion at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship in January.
“But he has just pipped me there - it was just a very, very tight match.
“I've played the last few holes as well as I could have done, I've hit two seven irons into 16 and 18 which were as good as I've ever hit, and I birdied both holes. But good on him for hitting such a good shot into 18 when I had put all the pressure on him.”
Both men will hold hopes of making Paul McGinley’s European team for The 2014 Ryder Cup – to be held a year in September at the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland – and Fernandez-Castaño reflected on the need to impress in the match play format ahead of the qualification period – which begins at the ISPS Handa Wales Open in August.
He said: “I like it. I used to play a lot of match play in my amateur days and I always liked it. I think even though my record is not good, I've always enjoyed playing it and I think I'm good at it.
“But I need to keep proving, especially to the new Ryder Cup Captain, that I can do well in this format.”