Breakthrough for Rai, Success for Van Dam, and World Cup Triumph for Belgium
Christmas lights have been switched in high streets across the country, but the approaching shadow of December hasn't curbed the weekly anthology of professional golf, with a series of tournaments - and one notable exhibition - concluding during the weekend. From the World Cup of Golf in Australia, the European Tour season-opener in Hong Kong, the LET finale in Spain, and yes, 'The Match' between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, there was surprisingly a lot going on.
World Cup of Golf
Thomas Pieters was a notable absentee from Europe's winning Ryder Cup team at Le Golf National in September, but the rookie of 2016 showcased his impressive credentials as a partner again by making history alongside Thomas Detry as Belgium won the World Cup of Golf for the first time.
Five shots ahead entering the Sunday foursomes at Metropolitan on the famed Melbourne sandbelt, the pair shot a four-under 68 to sit three clear of home favourites Australia and Mexico on 23-under at the summit of the leaderboard.
"It's been a long time since I won and this feels as good as an individual title. I'm very happy," said Pieters afterwards, whose most recent triumph was the Made in Denmark two years ago. For Detry, the 25-year-old, it's the continuation of a fine run of form, which included a tie for third place in the Turkish Airlines Open.
Elsewhere, Denmark and Canada were an additional three shots behind the winning side, while England's Tyrrell Hatton and Ian Poulter finished in eighth, completing an event that at one stage promised more for the duo. Likewise for Scotland's Russell Knox and Martin Laird, who had been in contention earlier in the week but ultimately finished in 14th (of 28) at 10-under, behind the Irish pairing of Shane Lowry and Paul Dunne. Wales' Stuart Manley and Bradley Dredge tied with the United States team of Kyle Stanley and Matt Kuchar on nine-under.
Hong Kong Open
Following the domination of Justin Rose, Lee Westwood and Danny Willett during the European Tour's Final Series, the new campaign - starting immediately after the last finished - ushered in continued success for English golfers, as 23-year-old Aaron Rai claimed his maiden title on the circuit. The Wolverhampton native had led by six shots after three rounds at Fanling, but found himself clawed in courtesy of the spectacular efforts of compatriot Matthew Fitzpatrick, threatening to produce a stunning comeback victory, but dropped a crucial shot on the 17th to ease the pressure on Rai, who ultimately secured the triumph by a solitary stroke on 17-under, with the former Ryder Cup player from Sheffield in the runner-up position.
Reacting afterwards, Rai said: "It's incredible.
"It definitely hasn't sunk in just yet. I'll probably need a few days for that to happen.
"Matt played incredibly all day. It was tough but again, I really just tried to play the course as much as possible rather than Matt or anyone else who was playing well today.
"I luckily managed to do that for most of the way around. It was tough considering the situation but I'm very pleased."
Rai was a more than respectable 58th on the Race to Dubai in his maiden year on the tour, following a tremendous season on the Challenge Tour when he tallied up three wins. Now with the confidence and assurance of recording this achievement in November, 2019 is set to be a breakthrough one for the Englishman.
Andalucia Costa del Sol Open
The Ladies European Tour may be on troubled waters, but it was plain sailing for Anne Van Dam who completed a three-stroke victory to finish the season in second on the Order of Merit, following her recent win at the Estrella Damm Ladies Mediterranean Open. It was a Spanish double for the Dutch player, who saw off the final round challenge of home favourite and Solheim Cup star Azahara Munoz to sit clear of the pack at 13-under and 10-under respectively.
“I don’t know what it is about Spain, but I like it," the 23-year-old said. "It was tricky weather all week and it was difficult approaching the greens, with the amount of spin I had. Today I hit a lot of good shots on the back nine that flew too far and had no spin, where I left myself some awkward putts. The conditions were not easy but I’m happy with how I played my way around the golf course.”
Europe's Solheim Cup captain Catriona Matthew impressively finished in third place, as Women's British Open champion Georgia Hall completed her major season with a tie for tenth to sit at the summit of the money list.
When it came to hype and social media attention, nothing could rival the anticipated 'Match' between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in Las Vegas. Two legends of the game who have combined for 19 major championships and 123 victories on the PGA Tour, the event was intended to be pay-per-view but ultimately came free of charge, as the two icons played to claim the eye-watering prize of $9m, a sum of money that attracted detractors to the whole exhibition. Views were divided about the spectacle before, during and after it.
For all the debate and contention, the match itself was fairly uneventful, with neither man finding their stride, though there was a brief moment of magic on the 17th when Woods chipped-in to keep his hopes of success alive, then missing a putt for victory in the first playoff hole. With darkness approaching, the two headed to a 93-yard extra hole under the lights to decide the destiny of that cheque, and it was Mickelson - so often in the shadow of Woods - who triumphed on the 22nd.
"I'm just trying to calm down, my heart can't take any more, it was such an incredible opportunity," the 48-year-old said.
"He's the greatest of all time but to have a little bit of smack talk for the coming years means a lot to me because I don't have a lot on him!"
The five-time major champion left with the money and the achievemet of seeing off Tiger Woods, but whether this experiment leads to anything more regular in future remains uncertain. Perhaps it would be better for everyone just to resurrect the old Shell's Wonderful World of Golf.
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