Graeme McDowell relieved as he seals first win in over three years to secure Tour exemption
Graeme McDowell held back tears and expressed his "massive relief" after a clutch 71st-hole birdie set up his first win for more than three years in the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship.
Without a victory since he almost holed a four-iron to claim the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in a play-off in 2015, the Portrush star (39) rifled a 175-yard six-iron to three feet at the 17th in the Dominican Republic to set up a two he will hope can turn his career around.
One clear overnight after following a 73 with back-to-back 64s, he raced three shots clear early in the round but was trailing playing partner Chris Stroud by one stroke with two holes to go.
Knowing he needed something special to have a chance, he proved that old adage about form being fleeting and class permanent with an iron shot that was worth more than the $540,000 first prize or a move from 257th to around 134th in the world rankings.
"I was standing on the 16th green and said to myself, you've got to do something that's tournament-winning," he said of a birdie that gave him a one-stroke lead as Stroud missed the green and bogeyed.
"The shot to 17 was tournament-winning level. This one is a pretty sweet victory. Like Mayakpnba in 2015, it comes at the end of a long grind. It's been coming."
Both men would bogey the 501 yard 18th but McDowell wasn't worried and can now map out a schedule that will give him chance to qualify for The Open in his home town of Portrush.
Asked greenside what the victory ranked for him given that he is now fully exempt again after being forced to ask for invitations after losing his card last year, McDowell said: "Don't make me cry. This is big.
"This is big for the people who stood by me - my sponsors, Srixon, RBC, Mastercard, Wheels Up - the guys who stood by me because it's been a rough few years.
"(My caddie) Kenny (Comboy), who has been at my side for the last 13 years, it's been a grind for my whole family."
On the key birdie he made at the 17th, he said: "I've been struggling with my medium- and long-iron play all week and it's a shot I have been working on the last few days.
"It was a perfect six-iron, a perfect number for me. When it came off the bat I knew it was pretty good.
"Chris Stroud played so well today. He hung in there and putted like I did yesterday. He was a tough guy to shake off."
Paul Dunne tied for 12th on 12-under after a 71 with Seamus Power tied for 44th after a 70, McDowell described the win and the two-year exemption as "a massive relief.
There was also relief over the weekend for Shane Lowry, who owes Francesco Molinari a mint julep at Augusta National after the Italian saved him 24 hours of suffering and confirmed his ticket to the Masters.
As Masters favourite Rory McIlroy suffered what Paul McGinley believes was "a psychological blow" by losing 2&1 to Tiger Woods in Saturday's last 16 clash, Lowry was breathing a sigh of relief.
Ranked 48th in the world, he needed at least one win in the WGC Dell Technologies Championship in Austin to remain in the world's top 50 and got that when he beat Andrew Putnam on Friday.
But overnight calculations revealed there was still a slim chance he could be bumped out of the top 50 by the slimmest of margins before Molinari came to Lowry's rescue in the quarter-finals, thrashing Kevin Na 6&5.
Molinari would lose to Kevin Kisner 1 down in the semi-finals and face Lucas Bjerregaard for third as Matt Kuchar saw off the Dane to reach the final.
Recalling how McIlroy had always expressed his desire to take on Woods in his prime, McGinley said: "Well, he got him in his prime and Tiger got the better of him. I think that's a psychological blow for Rory McIlroy."
On the European Tour, Scotland's Stephen Gallacher overcame a quadruple-bogey eight at the seventh and went on to birdie three of his last four holes to win his first European Tour title in five years at the Hero Indian Open.
"I am 45 this year so I am really proud of what I did out here today," said the 2014 Ryder Cup player after carding a one-under 71 to win by one stroke from Japan's Masahiro Kawamura on nine-under par.