They made for an unlikely quintet—World Rankings of 2, 287, 300, 513 and 735—but it was that sort of day “up the mountain” in the final round of the Omega European Masters.
First, the facts and figures. All five players shot 14-under 266 for four circuits of the endlessly picturesque Crans-sur-Sierre course, more than 5,000 feet up in the Swiss Alps. And in the end, the glory went to No. 287, Sebastian Soderberg. The Swede’s birdie at the first playoff hole was good enough to beat the pars made by Rory McIlroy (No. 2), Kalle Samooja (300) and Andres Romero (735). The odd man out, moments after hitting an unfortunate spectator with a badly pulled tee-shot, was Lorenzo Gagli (513), whose approach found water en route to an unavailing bogey.
All of which was routine stuff compared with the last couple of hours in regulation play. McIlroy’s fluctuating fortunes were typical of what went on. With seven holes to play, the Northern Irishman was two over par for the day and three shots off the pace set by the eventual champion, who had just made the first two of what would be five straight birdies.
So it appeared all over for a weary-looking McIlroy, only seven days after his FedEx Cup triumph across the Atlantic. Hang on though. Six holes and five birdies later, the Northern Irishman was tied with Soderberg as the pair walked with differing emotions to the 72nd tee. Where the familiar bounce was back in McIlroy’s stride, for the 28-year-old Soderberg, it was time to reflect on the seemingly catastrophic three-putts he had just taken from no more than five feet to make bogey on the penultimate green.
And there’s more. Replicating almost exactly the awful drive Seve Ballesteros struck in the 1993 edition of this long-standing event, McIlroy’s effort finished close to the plaque that commemorates the iconic spot from which the late Spaniard struck one of professional golf’s most audacious, creative and imaginative shots. Unfortunately, such an effort wasn’t available this time round, and McIlroy chipped out sideways to the fairway. From there he hit a spectacular approach stiff to the pin to make a “ridiculous” par.
Even then, the drama was not over. Only when Soderberg and Samooja missed eminently makable birdie putts on the final green was the European Tour’s first five-man playoff in eight years confirmed.
The extra time, although brief, also produced moments of suspense. McIlroy was first to hit close, his approach finishing no more than six feet away. Soderberg followed to eight feet before Samooja’s shot finished even closer, roughly five feet from the pin. But, as so often is the case in these instances, the first man in proved to be the winner. Soderberg, back on the European Tour after graduating from last year’s Challenge Tour money-list, holed for his 3, before watching the others miss narrowly.
“This is tough to describe,” said a somewhat breathless Soderberg, who picked up a career-high check for €416,000. “I was shaking the last few holes. I calmed down a bit for the playoff, but now I don’t know what to say. I actually didn’t play my best today, but my chipping and putting was unbelievable. And it was so exciting to play with Rory. This really hasn’t sunk in yet.
“All I really tried to do was just keep going. I didn’t really watch the leader board until the last tee. I hit the first putt on 17 too firm, but I’m proud of myself being able to play good when I was shaking so much. On the 18th, I just tried to focus on hitting two more good shots. There was not as much pressure in the playoff. I had nothing to lose. I was way more calm then I was over the last few holes.”
As a result of this, his maiden victory on the European Tour, Soderberg is exempt through the end of the 2021 season, a fact he described as “life changing.”
McIlroy was perhaps the most disappointed of the four playoff losers. Eleven years earlier, the then 19-year-old made a sloppy bogey on the same 72nd hole (he had only a wedge to the green) to fall into a playoff with the now long-forgotten Jean-Francois Lucquin. Two holes later, the Frenchman had what proved to be his only tour victory, and McIlroy had himself a long-standing itch, one that has still to be scratched.
“Too many mistakes,” McIlroy said on a tournament in which he made a remarkable 26 birdies and an eagle, but dropped as many as 14 shots. “I didn’t quite have it over the weekend. But this has been another solid event. Seven starts in eight weeks has been a long run. Mental errors were creeping in. And the sloppy finish yesterday [three bogeys in his last five holes] cost me. But I did my best today. It just wasn’t meant to be.”
Just about everything else was though.