Italy's Renato Paratore converted his 54-hole lead to run out a convincing winner of the Betfred British Masters.
-15 R Hojgaard
-13 Sullivan, Rock, Whitnell
Round four report
Italy's Renato Paratore converted his 54-hole lead to run out a convincing winner of the Betfred British Masters.
The 23-year-old saw off teenage sensation Rasmus Hojgaard by three shots, with Justin Harding fading tamely to third on a final day which began with drama but ended with a processional victory for the man who began the day in front.
Paratore has now won twice on the European Tour since graduating from Qualifying School at the age of 17, and will have eyes on climbing the ranks further now he's married consistency with the explosive talents which have been shown only in bursts in the past.
In the European Tour's full return to action after nearly five months of inactivity due to the coronavirus pandemic, Paratore's fellow players formed a socially-distant guard of honour behind the 18th green and he was surprised with a FaceTime call with his mother Cristina.
"It was really amazing," Paratore said. "I did not expect that from my friends on the Tour and it was a really good situation. I loved it and also to see my mum was a lovely surprise."
Paratore, who won the Nordea Masters in 2017, added: "This one feels amazing. I am really really happy. I did not expect to come back and win so soon after lockdown but I have worked really hard the last year.
"I plan to play the next five events and I said to my team the goal was definitely to get one of the 10 places in the US Open that are available (from a mini order of merit)."
Paratore began the final round having been bogey-free throughout the first three, and birdies at the fourth and seventh holes had him well set as Harding began to threaten.
The South African birdied the third to move within one only to hand that shot back at the fourth and then birdie the fifth, keeping within one of the leader until a clumsy three-putt at the seventh saw him fall two back once more.
With a run from those further back yet to materialise, it appeared a question of whether Harding could put some pressure on Paratore but he twice failed to do so, first when appearing set to perhaps draw level at the seventh, and then when three-putting the ninth from off the back of the green.
It was at the ninth that Paratore made his first bogey of the tournament, but rather than capitalise, Harding let him off the hook, his typically reliable short-game going missing under the pressure of the final round.
Another Paratore bogey soon followed at the 11th as he missed the green to the right, but Hojgaard had just bogeyed the same hole and birdies had run dry for Harding, whose final positive move would in the end come back at the fifth hole.
After Paratore steadied the ship with solid pars at holes 12, 13 and 14, only late fireworks could cause him real stress but not even Hojgaard's birdie at the par-five 17th really did that, and Paratore himself took advantage of that hole to restore a three-shot cushion.
That's how it ended, a solid par at the last enough to complete an impressive victory.
Round three report
Italy's Renato Paratore carded his third bogey-free round of the tournament to retain his lead at Close House, where he could join one of golf's most exclusive clubs if he can continue his flawless form in the British Masters.
Paratore carded a bogey-free round of 66 at Close House and has not dropped a single shot in the first 54 holes of the European Tour's full return to action for the first time since early March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The 23-year-old enjoys a one-shot lead over South Africa's Justin Harding, who also returned a 66 on a day of low scoring, and could become the first player to win a European Tour event without a bogey since Jesper Parnevik in the 1995 Scandinavian Masters.
JT Poston won the Wyndham Championship on the PGA Tour last year without dropping a shot, the first player since Lee Trevino to do so in 1974.
"It's a good thing to be in contention and I'll just keep trying to play like this," said Paratore, who won the Nordea Masters in 2017.
"I had a month after lockdown ended to practice and fortunately I live in Dubai and played a lot of rounds with a friend of mine, Guido Migliozzi, who also plays on the Tour.
"It's good to practice with someone at the same level as you to keep your game sharp."
Denmark's Rasmus Hojgaard is two shots off the lead after also shooting 66, with England's Dale Whitnell another stroke adrift following a 68.
Paratore held a one-shot lead overnight but had been overtaken before he could hit a ball in anger thanks to a stunning round from England's Sam Horsfield, whose 61 set a new course record.
Horsfield only made the halfway cut with a shot to spare but raced to the turn in 30 with four birdies and an eagle and also eagled the 10th to raise the prospect of just the second 59 in European Tour history.
A run of five straight pars effectively put that out of reach but he nevertheless finished the round in style with a birdie on the 16th and a remarkable third eagle of the day on the par-five 17th.
"I actually never thought about a 59 until walking up the 18th fairway," Horsfield said. "I missed a couple of putts on 13 and 14 from 12, 15 feet and I said to my caddie walking up 18, 'I may as well hole it and try to shoot 59'.
"I didn't do that but I had it going today, which was nice. I felt like the first two days I was maybe pushing a bit too hard as I haven't played a tournament in four months.
"I spoke to a few friends last night and they said, 'dude just go out there and play like you were playing at home, it's literally the same'. So that's what I tried to do today and I think it worked."
Horsfield, who is based in Florida and revealed his best friend had tested positive for Covid-19 during the pandemic, is seeking a first European Tour title and believes he is up to the task.
"I do feel ready to win," Horsfield added. "We've got qualification for the US Open (from the first five 'UK Swing' events) and that's one of my main goals, to play my way into that."
England's Jack Senior also enjoyed a surge through the field to eight under par thanks to a 63 which included a hole-in-one from 176 yards on the 14th.
However, tournament host and club member Lee Westwood, who was in the first group out at 7.55am, was unable to get in on the act and struggled to a 72 to slip back to level par.
Round Two report
Dale Whitnell fired an eagle and five birdies in a flawless 64 at Close House to finish 10 under par on the European Tour’s full return to action, a shot behind Italy’s Renato Paratore.
The 31-year-old from Colchester played on the 2009 Walker Cup team alongside Tommy Fleetwood but struggled to establish himself in the professional ranks and was forced to take on a courier job for 10 months to make ends meet.
A victory on the Portugal Pro Golf Tour earned him five Challenge Tour invites in 2019 and he won the KPMG Trophy last September before claiming his European Tour card from the qualifying school.
“I’ve been working hard on my game and this course suits me because it’s a little bit fiddly in places,” said Whitnell, who had not earned a single penny from five events in 2020 before the circuit shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m just trying to go about my business like I normally would and if it’s good enough, it’s good enough.”
The first prize of £187,000 and two-year European Tour exemption would be life-changing but Whitnell added: “I try not to think about it, but it can be.
“Two-and-a-half years ago I went and got a job, I was a courier driver, just to finance my year playing on the mini tours. Financially it just wasn’t viable, I couldn’t carry on, so I got a job to pay for it and the rest is history I suppose.
“The peaks and troughs of the golf profession are very interesting. You’ve just got to try to deal with it the best you can. I love the game, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t and my amateur career speaks for itself.
“I played Walker Cup with Tommy Fleetwood, I know all of those guys that I grew up with. I know that on my game I can compete with those guys.”
South Africa’s Justin Harding fired a brilliant 63, the lowest round of the week so far, to sit alongside Whitnell on 10 under, with David Law, Calum Hill, Ashley Chesters and Rasmus Hojgaard a stroke further back.
Ryan Fox is three off the pace following a second consecutive 67 which made the long journey from New Zealand worth the effort.
“I landed on Sunday morning, drove up here straight away, got tested as soon as I got here,” Fox said. “I waited for the result and managed to check myself into the hotel, socially distance and self-isolate basically.
“As soon as I got the negative result I was fine to come to the golf course and practice and have lunch in the clubhouse. It’s a bit different than normal but it’s certainly better than sitting at home and not playing any golf, that’s for sure.
“Unfortunately my wife is not travelling with me at the moment like she usually does but I’m out here for three months, then two weeks of managed isolation when I get back to New Zealand which will be quite difficult, but at least we’ve got some events on the schedule. That makes the trip worthwhile.”
The European Tour’s strict protocols to prevent cases of Covid-19 have been widely applauded, but did lead to the withdrawal of England’s Andrew Johnston after nine holes of his opening round.
Johnston, who opened up last year about the mental health struggles that followed his rapid rise to fame after winning the 2016 Spanish Open, said: “Being here and being confined to the hotel and course and not being able to bring my family is ultimately not what I want at this moment.
“I’m struggling to get my head around it all. One minute I’m coming out of lockdown, going out for dinner, and then the next I’m back in lockdown in a hotel room.”
Tournament host and club member Lee Westwood was in danger of making an early exit after a double bogey on the first, but the 47-year-old fought back to shoot 71 and make the cut on the mark of one under.
Round one report
A brilliant burst of scoring vaulted Scotland’s David Law to the top of the leaderboard as the European Tour enjoyed a successful, if somewhat surreal, return to action at the British Masters.
Law began his first round at Close House with five straight pars but then birdied the next five holes in a row, produced a brilliant up and down from thick rough to save par on the 11th and birdied the 12th and 13th as well.
The resulting seven-under-par 64 left the 29-year-old from Aberdeen a shot ahead of Oliver Fisher, Garrick Porteous and Renato Paratore, with 2018 winner Eddie Pepperell among those two shots further back.
Law had missed five cuts in seven events in 2020, including four in a row before the sport shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, although a recent course-record 60 at Hazlehead had suggested a return to the sort of form which saw him win the ISPS Handa Vic Open in February 2019.
“I did not really know what to expect and it’s probably (about having) a mindset of acceptance,” Law said. “You need to know it might not go your way this week. It’s only one round but it’s a very positive start.
“It was guilt-free time at home because there were no tournaments on that you were missing to be at home. It was a strange time but I got time at home with the family; we have a 19-month-old daughter and we’ll never get that time again.”
Fisher, who carded the first 59 in European Tour history in the Portugal Masters in 2018, was another player to enjoy time at home with a young family during the lockdown, but found the nasal swab test for Covid-19 a far less pleasurable experience.
“I felt a little bit violated I must say,” Fisher said with a smile. “It felt like he was trying to find my brain in there somewhere.”
All players, caddies and officials were tested before travelling to the venue and again when arriving on site, with no reported positives so far. Face masks are required indoors and social distancing measures observed.
No spectators have been allowed on the course, although Pepperell had one particular viewer in mind when he recovered from a slow start with four birdies in six holes from the sixth.
“I think having TV cameras there was a bit of a God-send,” Pepperell said. “When they’re there, you’re aware you’re on television. My mum’s watching, so I want to impress her.”
One of the most impressive rounds of the day came from former US Open champion Michael Campbell, who admitted he was “completely flabbergasted” with an opening 68.
Campbell has not made a cut on the European Tour since 2013 as he struggled with a foot injury and loss of form, but the 51-year-old New Zealander rolled back the years with the help of his caddie, his 21-year-old son Thomas.
“My expectations were pretty much none,” Campbell said. “I wanted to get out here and enjoy myself with my son Thomas. When I had my success from 1999 to 2005 he was only seven, so he can’t remember.
“My main focus is on the Champions Tour but it’s hard to get in there. I asked for 15 invites last year and got one. It doesn’t mean much, being a major winner. Paul Lawrie has had exactly the same problem.”
Tournament host Lee Westwood ended the day six shots off the lead but relatively satisfied with his 70, adding: “I didn’t really have control of my swing and I mis-clubbed a few times which is probably not acceptable being a member here.
“But I putted really well and ground it out and I think one under par is probably a really good score for the way that I played.”
If only Westwood could have celebrated by kissing his fiance and caddie Helen Storey on the 18th green. “We weren’t sure if we were allowed to,” he added. “It’s strange, should we, shouldn’t we?”