Soren Kjeldsen claims Irish Open after play-off drama
Denmark's Soren Kjeldsen won the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in dramatic circumstances after looking to have let a fourth European Tour victory slip from his grasp.
Kjeldsen took a two-shot lead into the final round and was one ahead with two holes remaining despite being four over par for the day as the players battled heavy showers and winds gusting up to 40mph at Royal County Down.
A three-putt bogey on the 17th left Kjeldsen needing to birdie the last to win, but after chipping from one side of the green off the other, he did well to get up and down for par and a closing 76 to join England's Eddie Pepperell and Austria's Bernd Wiesberger in a play-off.
The players returned to the par-five 18th for sudden death and, after finding the green in two and seeing his opponents fail to make birdie, Kjeldsen two-putted from 25 feet, although his birdie attempt did a full circuit of the hole before dropping.
"Three weeks ago I was 112th in the Order of Merit and my game was not in good shape," Kjeldsen said. "With turning 40 (a fortnight ago) you wonder was that it? Now I am standing here and it's pretty remarkable really."
Kjeldsen, whose last win came in the Open de Andalucia in 2009, admitted he was feeling the pressure after his two-shot overnight lead disappeared on the first hole, which he bogeyed and playing partner Max Kieffer birdied.
The 40-year-old also bogeyed the second but with the tough conditions sending scores soaring, a run of five pars was enough to put Kjeldsen back in front before a double bogey on the eighth, where his first chip failed to reach the green and came back to his feet.
"The last breath I took was on about the 14th," added Kjeldsen, who reclaimed the lead with his only birdie of the day on the 12th. "I have never been as nervous as this in the other tournaments I have won.
"I had decided not to look at leaderboards but once I started dropping shots I started looking because it gave me a little pleasure that I wasn't the only one struggling because it was such a brutal day.
"I was leaking shots left, right and centre but made a great up and down on 15 and the three-wood second shot in the play-off was pretty special."
Kjeldsen also claimed one of the three places available in the Open Championship to players finishing in the top 10 who were not already exempt, with Pepperell and Tyrrell Hatton taking the others.
"It's like I am dreaming but I don't want anyone to wake me up," added Kjeldsen, who has not played in the Open since it was last held at St Andrews in 2010.
Pepperell had set the clubhouse target on two under after a remarkable bogey-free 69, with Wiesberger missing from eight feet for birdie on the 18th in his closing 73.
Spain's Rafael Cabrera-Bello missed out on the play-off - and with it a place in the Open - after a bogey on the 18th, with Hatton alongside Cabrera-Bello on one under after a par on the last in a closing 74.
"I played really well, no question, but I had to putt really, really well," Pepperell said. "All four days have been tough, so while today was very difficult it did not feel that different to the first three days.
"I said to myself anything in the 60s was a really good score and it was a great round of golf."
Only five players finished under par after a testing week which saw tournament host and world number one Rory McIlroy miss the cut after rounds of 80 and 71.
"I am very proud to be associated with what has been an incredible event," McIlroy said. "To bring this tournament to Northern Ireland and see the amount of people who came out to support the event and the foundation as well was brilliant."
Speaking about securing his Open debut, Pepperell added: "It's great. It didn't cross my mind until I walked off the 18th and my caddie told me. That's a real bonus. I know my dad and a few friends had already planned to go there regardless.
"Having never played an Open before, for my first one to be St Andrews is going to be quite special and the fact that we play there every year (in the Dunhill Links Championship) can only help. I'll go there pretty confident."