Pete Oakley produced the biggest upset victory in the history of the Senior British Open Championship presented by MasterCard when he triumphed by one stroke at Royal Portrush Golf Club.
The little known American held off an elite entourage of players that included American Tom Kite, Argentina’s Eduardo Romero and Englishman Mark James to become the first qualifier to take the coveted title in the 18-year history of the event.
European Seniors Tour rookie Oakley started the final round with a one stroke lead and held his nerve on another chilly and windy day to fire a two under par 70 and finish the tournament on four under par 284.
Romero and Kite claimed second place after carding rounds of 67 and 69 respectively while James shot a 70 to finish a stroke further back.
“I'm still trying to rationalize at the moment. My world is changing at the moment, at this very moment. I’m not used to all of this attention, but it certainly is rewarding and I’m very much excited and looking forward to what’s going to happen to me the next year,” said Oakley, whose biggest claim to fame had been winning the 1999 PGA Senior Club Professional Championship in America.
In a tight finish Oakley led by one stroke playing the final hole and was struggling to make par when he hit his second shot into a deep trap just short of the green.
He faced a difficult bunker shot from 20 yards and with the crowd sensing the possibility of a play-off he handled the pressure magnificently by splashing out to 12 feet.
“I have confidence in my bunker play, and I was able to hit the shot I thought I was going to hit, came off and went farther past the hole than I was hoping. But I've been putting the ball very well also, this week, and just let what happened the entire week happen again, and I rode it right in and won,” said Oakley, who won €237,365 (£157,800).
Oakley’s brother David has been playing on the Seniors Tour since 1996 and was greenside when the winning putt was holed.
“Yeah, we embraced and cried on each other’s shoulder and he was probably at least as happy for me as I was. His wife, Doris, and Christopher, likewise, so we all are just excited for this change in the Oakley family and looking forward to it,” said Oakley.
The American led the Championship by three with three to play but dropped a shot on the 16th and then had his lead cut to one when Kite, playing in the group ahead, birdied 17. Romero, paired with Kite, also put the heat on the leader by birdieing 15, 16 and 17.
Said Kite: “I played really well today. A really good round. I got real aggressive on a first putt on number 14 which I thought I could make and I zipped it right on by. I missed the one coming back to make bogey. That hurt me, but other than that and a bad swing on the 13th hole I played a very, very good round of golf. I have trouble complaining about a round of three-under-par today.”
Romero left his charge a little too late but it was a fine debut on the Seniors Tour by the man who turned 50 last Saturday.
“Yes, it was very good, especially on this links course. I love playing on links courses and this one was fantastic and especially also the chance to play with players like Tom Kite and Mark James, old friends. I really enjoyed it. It is a different atmosphere to the regular tour, it was a lot more relaxed and I think I will enjoy my time with the seniors, although I will still play the main tour for a little while yet,” said Romero.
James won the Ford Senior Players Championship, which like this week’s event is a Major in the senior game, a fortnight ago and was bidding to become the first European golfer to win back to back Majors since countryman JH Taylor won the Open Golf Championship in 1894 and 1895.
He was joint leader for part of the day but finished just short on this occasion.
“I played better today than any other day. I hit less bad shots. My swing felt good but I didn’t do anything right, didn’t really hole very much,” said James.
Ireland’s Mark McNulty and American Don Pooley tied for fifth, three behind Oakley.
Australian Graham Marsh, who the hit headlines this week for making two holes in one on the same hole, and American Bruce Summerhays shared the Hardys Super Seniors Prize which goes to the leading player aged over 60. The duo tied for ninth place on four over for the tournament after they both closed with rounds of 71.