MIKKO ILONEN hailed the best year of his career after becoming the first Finnish player to win the Volvo World Match Play Championship with a hard-fought victory over top seed and good friend Henrik Stenson.
Ilonen carded five birdies and no bogeys despite the windy conditions at The London Club to win 3&1 and secure the first prize of €650,000, almost double his previous biggest payday from winning the Irish Open in June.
Stenson, who had not led at any stage of his morning semi-final against George Coetzee before making a birdie on the 18th to win, claimed an early lead in the final with a birdie on the fourth.
However, the world number five then bogeyed the fifth and hit his tee shot into the water on the eighth, before birdies on the 10th and 12th took Ilonen three up.
Stenson, still seeking his first win since the DP World Tour Championship in November last year which meant he became the first man to win the FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai in the same season, refused to throw in the towel and birdied the 13th to reduce his deficit.
But after almost holing his chip from the back of the 14th green, the Swede could only look on as Ilonen holed from 12 feet for birdie to move three ahead again, this time with just four holes remaining.
Stenson fought back with a two-putt birdie on the par-five 15th, but was unable to birdie either of the next two holes as Ilonen - who had beaten Joost Luiten 2&1 in the semi-finals - secured the biggest win of his career.
"It's pretty hard to sum it up right now," the 34-year-old said. "The game plan was not to make any mistakes because I couldn't afford any against a player like Henrik. I did not play that well this morning but felt pretty comfortable going into the final, I knew I had a good chance.
"He's one of the best players in the world but I see him as a friend. We have played so much golf over the years that he did not intimidate me."
"Last year was a good one for me (he won the Nordea Masters) and 2007 was a good year (when he won twice)," added Ilonen. "I've had a few of them but if you look at all the world rankings and the tournaments I've won, obviously this year is on top."