This time he was all smiles, almost a grimace-free zone. One week on from being told to “grow up” and labelled “a disgrace” by former European Tour professional Gary Evans, Tyrrell Hatton strolled to victory—for the second straight year—in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St. Andrews.
Five strokes ahead with 18 holes to play in the European Tour’s nod to the AT&T Pebble Beach-style pro-am, the 25-year-old Englishman all but ended any doubt as to the destination of the first-place check of €676,133 with a run of four straight birdies from the second hole. Out in 31, five under par and by then seven strokes clear, Hatton, the tournament's first repeat winner, could afford the steady back-nine that saw him cruise in with a six-under 66, took him to a tournament-record 24 under par and reduced the final margin of victory to three strokes on the way back into the Auld Grey Toon.
Former Ryder Cup player Ross Fisher’s course-record 11-under-par 61, which included three-putts from just off the green for a closing par on the 18th, carried him into second place for the second year in a row. No one else was within seven shots of the now two-time champion.
Indeed, on a day of little or no wind and with more accessible pin positions than one might see in an Open Championship, the relatively soft Old Course was all but defense-less. By way of illustration, the leading 11 finishers were a cumulative 62 under par for their final rounds. It wasn’t quite pitch-and-putt, but it wasn’t far off.
None of which should diminish the sometimes temperamental Hatton’s achievement. All in all, his was a remarkable performance, one containing 26 birdies. Only twice, both on the opening day at the Old Course, did he drop shots over the 72 holes that combined two rounds at the Home of Golf with one each at Carnoustie and Kingsbarns.
“This week was the first time I had ever defended a title or had the challenge to try and do it,” Hatton said. “It felt like it was a lot harder today than it was last year. I’m so happy that I managed to get over the line. I didn’t see a leader board on the back nine until the 16th green, when I saw Ross was at 21 under. The 15-minute wait on the 17th tee certainly made the drive seem harder than I wanted it to be. But fair play to Ross. It was an incredible round of golf, and he certainly did push me all the way.”
For Hatton this win, his second on the European Tour, represents the highlight of a disappointing season in which he missed the halfway cut in all four major championships. After a T-4 finish at the PGA Tour’s Arnold Palmer Invitational in March lifted him as high as No. 14 in the world, Hatton slumped badly. At one point he failed to qualify for the weekend in eight of nine successive events. His best effort anywhere before a T-3 finish at last month’s European Masters was as long ago as April, a lowly T-29 in the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage.
All of which saw Hatton’s world ranking fall to 29 before a promising although ultimately disappointing T-8 finish at last week’s British Masters. Leading at the halfway stage, Hatton fell away badly in a final round marked by petulance and poor body language, which provoked Evans’ public criticism.
“I listened to too many opinions and just got on a bad run,” said Hatton of his summer of discontent. “If you’re not holing putts and hitting a few bad shots, you feel like you can't score any worse. That’s the sort of phase I went through. My swing feels good now though.”
Elsewhere—and a long way down the leader board—Rory McIlroy completed his final tournament of 2017 with a even-par 72 that left the four-time major champion in a tie for 63rd place, 20 strokes back of Hatton.
“I think my last round of 2017 sort of summed up all of 2017,” said the Northern Irishman, who will not play again competitively until the Abu Dhabi Championship next January. “Not much happening, good or bad. Just sort of stuck in neutral. It hasn’t been the year I wanted on the golf course. I think there’s a lot of areas of my game that need sharpening. Wedge play and putting would be the two main areas that I need to get better. But I see no reason why I can’t be better in the next 10 years. That’s why I feel like these next three months are important for me to put some really good things in place, step away and reassess where I’m at and where I need to be.”