Martin survives Dunhill wobble
SPAIN'S Pablo Martin (24) became the first player since Padraig Harrington to successfully defend a title on the European Tour yesterday, showing true grit on Leopard Creek's final hole to win the Alfred Dunhill Championship.
Martin appeared to be coasting to victory in the first event on Europe's 2011 schedule as he surged five clear of his closest challenger, Anthony Michael, when the Sunshine Tour rookie ran up a double-bogey six at 11.
Yet Martin wobbled like a toddler on a trike down the stretch, following up on an untidy bogey at 14 with a brain-scrambling triple-bogey seven at 17 to leave himself just one stroke clear of Michael going to the daunting 541-yard closing par five.
In fairness to the man from Malaga, he somehow managed to compose himself on the walk to the 18th tee and hit a superb drive into mid-fairway before finding the heart of a green surrounded on three sides by water with a superb five-wood approach.
Martin got down in two for a birdie and a two-under-par 70, which left him two strokes ahead of Michael, but the huge sigh of relief he heaved when that final putt dropped told the true story of the final few holes of his third tournament victory on the European Tour.
Michael's chances of finishing in outright second place were scotched by a mix of bad luck and poor judgment at the last. After pulling his final tee shot left of the fairway, the Johannesburg native's ball came to rest under the boughs of a tree.
The obvious course was to lay up but Michael instead took on the shot to the green instead. He struck it beautifully, but the loft needed to clear another tall tree in front meant the 25-year-old's ball was destined to fall well short and into the water, denying him any chance of birdie.
A sweet up-and-down for a commendable par five and a final-round 73 left Michael tied second on nine-under with Danish Challenge Tour graduate, Thorbjorn Olesen, whose 66 was the best round of the day, and fellow-South African Charl Schwartzel.
It was worth €77,767 to the rookie, €37,243 less than he'd have won in second place on his own.
Schwartzel, the Alfred Dunhill champion in 2004, was left with a frustrating fourth runner-up finish at Leopard Creek after frittering away shots late on in his final-round 70, not least an infuriating bogey-six from mid-fairway on 15.
Martin, who won the 2006 Portuguese Open as an amateur, enjoyed a birdie-eagle start yesterday and was in cruise control after further birdies at seven and nine sent him through the turn in four-under-par.
Yet after a near brush with disaster at 13, where his approach luckily landed in a greenside bunker instead of the river, Martin bogeyed 14 after carving his three-wood tee shot deep into the trees.
The Spaniard then made "a big mess" at 17. Having driven into a fairway bunker, he slammed his next shot into a plugged lie in the grass just above the face and, despite a free drop, needed four more to get down.
Yet Martin held his nerve to become the first player since Harrington won back-to-back British Opens in 2007 and 2008 to successfully defend a title on the European Tour.
Michael Hoey earned €8,100 in a tie for 30th on two-over after posting his third successive 72 yesterday, while Damien McGrane pocketed €5,400 in 43rd place after a closing 75 left him three shots behind the Belfastman.
Hoey, McGrane, Gareth Maybin and Paul McGinley bring down the curtain on 2010 at this week's South African Open in Durban.