A New Star Is Born in Johnnie Walker Classic

Sun 04 Mar 2007

A New Star Is Born in Johnnie Walker Classic

Phuket, Thailand, March 4: South African Anton Haig showed he was a star in the making when he clinched a dramatic play-off victory in the prestigious Johnnie Walker Classic on Sunday.

Haig, who turns 21 in May, sank a 10-foot birdie putt in the first hole of a sudden-death shootout against compatriot Richard Sterne and England's Oliver Wilson to prevail over a world-class field assembled at the spectacular Blue Canyon Country Club.

The new Johnnie Walker champion, who joins luminaries including Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Ernie Els and Tiger Woods as a winner of the popular event, showed nerves of steel to force his way into the play-off after the leading trio finished tied on 13-under-par 275.

"It feels absolutely amazing," said Haig, who earned nearly US$405,000 for his career's biggest triumph yet. "At the start of the week, I didn't think this was actually going to be possible. But after that 64 (on day two), I knew I was hitting the ball good enough to win, and thank God that driver went straight for me today and the putts fell. And the putt on the last, what a feeling that was. If only I could explain it in words!"

Trailing Wilson and overnight leader Sterne by one stroke with the last to play, Haig pulled off a gutsy birdie after finding a lucky break when a wayward drive ended in a safe spot. He nailed a wedge from 98 yards to three feet to join the play-off, and then sealed a memorable triumph.

After his putt disappeared into the hole, Haig leapt for joy towards his parents, Tony and Lorraine, who had flown over this week for the Johnnie Walker Classic. "I thought, "oh, this is trouble," after I hit the drive on 18 in regulation and I thought I had actually lost the tournament there," he said.

"But I got a good break and had a shot. The ball was lying on a downslope, not lying too good, but hit a great lob-wedge, one of the best shots I've ever hit, to about three-foot and made it for birdie. And then the play-off hole, I hit a smooth wedge to about 10 feet and made that. What a feeling, birdieing one of the toughest holes out there."
Haig, who has been rated highly by his more famous compatriots, Els and Retief Goosen, moved up to the to the top of the UBS Order of Merit with US$421,889 with his second Asian Tour triumph and his maiden European Tour win also gave him a priceless two-year exemption onto the European Tour.

"Hopefully there will be many more to come. I will keep fighting and hopefully be as good as Ernie and Retief one day," he said.

Sterne, who charged into contention with a pair of course record equalling 64s after opening with a 75, came closest to forcing a second extra hole but his birdie attempt from 12 feet hit the edge of the cup. Ultimately, he would rue a costly bogey on 17 which saw him relinquish the lead which he had held for much of the back nine of a thrilling Sunday afternoon.

"It was close," said Sterne."I played my best but it didn't go the way I wanted to go. It's great for Anton. I'm disappointed but I did my best. The 17th is a tough hole. I hit a good putt there and hit a good putt on 18 in regulation and again in the play-off. But nothing went in," he added.

It was Wilson's second defeat in a play-off following his loss to countryman Paul Casey in the 2005 Volvo China Open and he took it in his stride. After leading briefly with a birdie on the second hole, Wilson dropped successive bogeys on the sixth and seventh but clawed his way back into the hunt by birdieing the par fives on the back nine.

"Anton did well. I had my chances and didn?t take them. It was easy from the middle of the fairway, both in regulation play and in the play-off and I didn?t get the ball within 20 feet. That was disappointing. I hit a great putt in the play-off but probably gave myself too much to do with Richard and Anton well inside me," said Wilson, who stared at a 25-foot birdie putt in extra time.

World number eight Goosen, a two-time Major champion and winner of the Johnnie Walker Classic in 2002, settled for fourth place after a 70, finishing three strokes outside the play-off while former US Masters winner Mike Weir of Canada was a further stroke back after a 67.

Two-time Johnnie Walker Classic winner Els settled for a share of sixth place alongside Scotsman Colin Montgomerie, South African veteran David Frost and India's Gaurav Ghei, who was Asia's best finisher.

Ghei, who started the day in 50th place, equalled Greg Norman's 12-year-old course record of 64, the fourth time that it has been achieved this week, with a stunning round that included an eagle-two on his first hole. The Indian, a two-time winner on the Asian Tour, signed off in equally superb style when he rolled in a 40-foot birdie putt at the last.

"It was unreal. It was great to play a round like that on a course like this. This is one of the biggest events of the year for us and it's special playing a good round and finishing off a big tournament well," said Ghei, who needed only 23 putts all day.

"When I hit that approach shot on the first hole, it looked really good and I heard it hit the pin. On the first day, on the 10th hole, my playing partner Jean-Francois Lucquin hit the pin and ended 30 feet back. On the 11th hole, Scott Strange hit the pin and ended 30 feet back.

"So, my first reaction was "I hope it's on the green." Then the guys around the green didn't realise what had happened and suddenly they figured out it's gone in and then they go "yeah!"


Leading final scores

275 - Anton Haig (RSA) 71-64-70-70, Richard Sterne (RSA) 75-64-64-72, Oliver Wilson (ENG) 68-66-70-71

(Haig wins on first hole of a sudden-death play-off with a birdie on 18th hole)

278 - Retief Goosen (RSA) 68-68-72-70

279 - Mike Weir (CAN) 66-78-68-67

280 - Colin Montgomerie (SCO) 69-70-70-71, Ernie Els (RSA) 73-70-67-70, David Frost (RSA) 69-70-72-69, Gaurav Ghei (IND) 69-73-74-64

281 - Richard Bland (ENG) 68-70-72-71, Simon Hurd (ENG) 73-71-66-71, Jean Van De Velde (FRA) 72-69-71-69, Iain Steel (MAS) 69-73-70-69

282 - Richard Lee (NZL) 67-70-70-75, Marc Warren (SCO) 68-72-71-71

283 - Wang Ter-Chang (TPE) 68-70-71-74, Graeme Storm (ENG) 66-73-70-74, Aron Price (AUS) 74-68-67-74, Chris Rodgers (ENG) 71-70-71-71, Adam Bland (AUS) 71-67-75-70, Terry Pilkadaris (AUS) 70-70-73-70, Garry Houston (WAL) 72-68-73-70, Alastair Forsyth (SCO) 74-70-69-70, Robert-Jan Derksen (NLD) 71-71-73-68

284 - James Nitties (AUS) 69-67-74-74, Jeev Milkha Singh (IND) 67-72-71-74, Stephen Gallacher (SCO) 66-76-68-74, Matthew Millar (AUS) 71-70-71-72, Brad Kennedy (AUS) 65-77-71-71, Adam Scott (AUS) 74-69-70-71, Mark Foster (ENG) 72-70-72-70