Tuesday 23 January 2018

Kjeldsen finds a little bit extra to take title

Dane prevails in sudden-death drama to end six-year drought at weather-hit Irish Open

Soren Kjeldsen (left) putts to win the play off as Bernd Wiesberger looks on during day four of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club (Brian Lawless/PA Wire)
Soren Kjeldsen (left) putts to win the play off as Bernd Wiesberger looks on during day four of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club (Brian Lawless/PA Wire)
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

The smash hit television series Game of Thrones is filmed near Newcastle, County Down but we had a Game of Squalls in a weather-lashed Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.

Every so often in that TV show, a character says with gloomy foreboding: "Winter is coming. . ."

Well, winter came to Royal County Down at some stage on each of the four tournament days, converting a tournament which promised a fiesta of golf into a war of attrition and the survival of the fittest.

This was not the way it was supposed to happen.

Rory You-Know-Who and a host of marquee players displaying their wares on one of the most famous golf links on the world. . . what could go wrong?

The dreaded Irish weather for one thing. Rory running on a flat battery and making his exit on Friday evening for another. The Irish challenge evaporating over the course of the weekend was almost the final straw.

I say 'almost' because this was live sport, live golf played in real time and on Mother Nature's terms, not ours, and as is the way of it, some players coped better than others.

Hats off, and hearty cheers, then, for our 2015 champion - Soren Kjeldsen of Denmark, winner in a sudden death play-off against England's Eddie Pepperell and Bernd Wiesberger of Austria.

Kjeldsen can go home and tell anyone who wants to listen: "I beat Rory McIlroy. I beat Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els, Martin Kaymer, Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, in fact I beat 155 fellow professionals on one of the toughest tracks in the world in often brutal conditions. So there!"

Of course, the newly crowned champion was far too modest to say anything like that.

In the immediate aftermath, the dominant emotion of the 40-year-old who last won in 2009 was relief.

Six years and 63 days, and 174 events between victories in addition to reaching the big Four-Oh as he did on May 17 will do that to you.


Doors previously closed will now open to the big tournaments, including the Open Championship at St Andrews in July. Kjeldsen often wondered if those days would return.

"You know, I played all the Majors and World Golf Championships back in 2008, 2009, and 2010 and not much happened," he said.

"You reach 40 and you start wondering 'am I never going back to Augusta, am I never going to play the Open again?'

"But I kept waking early, I kept working on the range, I kept hitting chip shots and bunker shots and putts. I wanted to show that I've still got a lot to give, and I still absolutely love what I do."

That said, standing on the podium holding the trophy with the cheers of hardy and enthusiastic Irish golf fans was a bit of an "unaccustomed as I am" moment for the modest Dane, especially as he started the day with a two shot lead and knew it was his to lose.

Kjeldsen began his final round on seven under for the tournament.

Germany's Maximillian Kieffer, who broke Jimmy Bruen's 76-year-old course record with a scintillating 65 on Saturday, and Spain's Rafa Cabrera-Bello were on five under.

Behind them was a trio on four under - Richie Ramsay, Tyrell Hatton and Wiesberger with five others, including Luke Donald, all in close contention.

The weather yesterday was better than previous days in that the number of brutal squalls was reduced. Wind was always a factor. Sporadic gale gusts had the marquees in the tented village flapping furiously.

Anything could happen out on the course, as Kjeldsen knew only too well.

"To have the chance was exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time, because I haven't played great for a long time," he said. "It was a roller coaster of emotions the whole way around.

"I felt like I was swinging the club well, and hitting decent shots but kept missing greens and couldn't make any putts.

"I felt it was my tournament to lose, so it was a difficult situation."

Tough as Kjeldsen found it, so did the other challengers.

Pepperell (24), who was a regular foe for McIlroy during their amateur days, did marvellously well to go bogey-free for 18 holes.

He also picked up shots with birdie three on the eighth and 13th holes and arrived back at base with a 69 and two-under for the tournament.

Cabrera-Bello could hardly believe his bad fortune on the greens. Birdie putt after birdie putt slipped past. Where Pepperell went bogey-free, the Spaniard could not make a single birdie and a four-over-par 75 left him on one-under.

Wiesberger had 73, with the possibilities of it being better left unrealised, but at least he, too got to two-under 282 and went into a play-off with Kjeldsen and Pepperell.

Kieffer was in the last group alongside Kjeldsen but shot himself out of the running with a horrible 77, yet still earned a good cheque as he tied eighth on one-over.

Kjeldsen almost made a total bags of it, as he came to the 72nd hole needing a birdie to win, only to pull his approach shot to the par-5 left and into rough.

The ball was in a decent lie, with a swale between the Dane and the green. A good chip and a putt and he's home, but he gave it too much and the ball rolled through and off the green on the opposite side.

He did well to get up and down for par and 76, which was nine shots worse than his third-round 67.

Wiesberger also missed a birdie chance on that hole, and off they went to play the 548-yard 18th in sudden death.

Kjeldsen did terrifically well to get on in two. Pepperell got into trouble down the right-hand side and could only make par.

Wiesberger was 30 yards short in two shots, but took three to get down.

Over to Kjeldsen with a knee-knocking five-footer for the Irish Open which he holed for his day of glory.

He paid tribute to his caddy of three weeks, Alistair Matheson, who has given him new belief. "From day one he has been so encouraging," said Kjeldsen.

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