It was close, but only briefly. Three shots clear overnight and with 11 holes to play in the much-delayed Andalucia Valderrama Masters, defending champion Sergio Garcia looked to be in good shape in his quest to win the tournament for a third straight time. Come Monday morning, however, a combination of Garcia’s mere steadiness and Shane Lowry’s belated brilliance saw that lead diminish to a single shot by the time the Spaniard stood on the 14th tee.
That was about exciting as things got though. Garcia’s immediate birdie took him to 11 under par and, minutes later, Lowry made a double-bogey 5 on the short 15th. Suddenly, the lead was a much more comfortable four shots and the former Masters champion was cruising to his 15th European Tour victory. Four strokes was the eventual margin, Garcia’s closing 69 and 12 under par total earning him €387,500.
Still, it is a measure of Garcia’s struggles this year that this win is only his third (the Singapore Masters on the Asian Tour is the other) since he donned the green jacket at Augusta National 18 months ago. He arrived a lowly 41st on the Race to Dubai, with T-7 at the WGC-Mexico and the Portugal Masters his previous best finishes in a disappointing season that has clearly been rejuvenated by his sterling play at last month’s Ryder Cup.
For Lowry, too, this was at least a step in the right direction and guaranteed him a spot in the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai. Sixty-third on the Race to Dubai before this week, his closing five-under 66 helped move him up 20 places, well inside the all-important top 60.
Indeed, the genial Irishman has not been quite the same player since squandering a four-shot 54-hole lead in the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont. By way of example, his previous best effort on the European Tour this season was sixth at the Portugal Masters. Not what you’d expect from a man good enough to win the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational only three years ago.
“I don’t think I’m at the level where I’m out there just to win majors,” he said earlier this year. “I want to win tournaments. It’s hard to win on the PGA Tour. It’s hard to win in Europe. Yes, Rory [McIlroy] and some of the other lads can set themselves up for majors every year. But I’m not one of those. I don’t think you can plan to peak in certain weeks. I just don’t. If you do try to peak for a certain event you are putting too much pressure on yourself. It’s just about playing well at the right time. And you can’t really plan that.”
Oakmont lives on in his mind though. How could it not?
“If you think about it, Dustin Johnson finished four under par there, played some great golf and won,” continued Lowry. “But if he had not been there, I would have been playing off for the title on the Monday. That’s the way I look at it. So, while I maybe should have won—I was tied for the lead with five holes to go—I had three three-putts in a row on 14-15-16. But it’s behind me. And I think I’ll compete at that level again. When I do I’ll have good chance of winning. Hopefully something from Oakmont will help me over the line.”
Further down the leader board at the 1997 Ryder Cup venue, there was a lot more drama in the chase to make it into the top 116 all-exempt places on the Race to Dubai. And, as ever, there was both relief and disappointment to be found when all was done.
Perhaps the biggest smile belonged to Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano. The 38-year-old Spaniard’s T-5 finish hauled him up to 104th on what was once the Order of Merit, a rise of 21places. Equally relieved was former U.S. Amateur champion Richie Ramsay. The Scot closed with a fine round of 68, finished T-11 and squeezed into next season in 115th place, one spot higher than the final qualifier, six-time tour winner David Horsey.
Less fortunate was another Scotsman, former World Cup winner Marc Warren, who will join the likes of former BMW PGA champion Matteo Manassero and Frenchman Gregory Havret—runner-up to Graeme McDowell in the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach—at the upcoming tour school.