Victorian Nathan Holman has broken through for a life-changing victory, claiming the Australian PGA Championship with a par at the first play-off hole, writes Steve Keipert.
BY STEVE KEIPERT at RACV ROYAL PINES RESORT
AFTER 72 holes of this Australian PGA Championship only three players managed to shoot par figures and after 73 holes only Nathan Holman could claim the same.
The PGA has a new, young champion just as it has a new, young venue that will test players for years to come. In essence, Holman and the revitalised RACV Royal Pines Resort layout were equally victorious this week.
The 24-year-old shot 73 on Sunday after bogeying the last two holes to fall to even-par 288, a score matched one group later by two of the three overnight leaders, American Harold Varner III and South African Dylan Frittelli. On the first extra hole, only Holman found the fairway, only Holman found the green in regulation and only Holman made par, two-putting from 25 feet after Varner III and Frittelli missed par attempts from 20 and ten feet, respectively.
Another South African in Zander Lombard finished a shot out of the tie; with Brisbane's Cameron Smith a co-leader early on the back nine before three late bogeys left him two strokes light in fifth.
"It's crazy," Holman said. "Walking off that 18th hole when I hit that shot onto the green [in the play-off], I could start to feel the legs were a little bit shaky. I was probably thinking into the future a little bit. I trIed to snap out of that, but I obviously got a little bit of help there with the two guys making bogey. But to win the event is an amazing feeling.
"I was obviously a little bit disappointed that I couldn't close it out earlier and not let those guys have a chance, but to be able to get a second chance at it and then to win on the first play-off hole is pretty nerve-wracking and I was pretty happy I didn't have to go too many more."
Holman is the youngest Australian PGA champion this century and this victory extends the streak of home-grown winners to 16 years. The Victorian, who began the week ranked 318th in the world, now enjoys two years of full status on the European Tour courtesy of the tournament's new co-sanctioning arrangement with that circuit.
Holman was a former amateur star, winning the Victorian Amateur and Riversdale Cup and almost taking out the Victorian Open while still a lilywhite before turning pro in late 2013. He co-led the Australian Masters after two rounds that year and played alongside Adam Scott in the third round before fading to finish 15th. Aside from his European Tour exemption, Holman receives a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour of Australasia, where he is now guaranteed to top the Order of Merit for 2015 after his $331,000 PGA payday. The perks of both honours include starts at the Open Championship at Royal Troon next July and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Ohio earlier that month.
"It's huge," said Holman, who suffered a wrist injury earlier in the year that stalled his season. "I didn't realise what was on the line, which was probably a good thing to be honest. I did think I would get to those events in the future; I didn't think it would be this quickly. For a young Australian guy to be able to go and play those events ... it's stuff you dream of playing golf when you're a kid. To get into those events, just to play them is going to be an amazing feeling. And to do it off the back of a victory I think is probably going to be better. I've deserved it, so I know I can go there knowing that I've done something really good to be there."
The respective paths to the play-off were as diverse as the roads to Gundagai. Holman opened with a 77, recovering to shoot 68 then 70. Today he double-bogeyed the 1st hole for the second straight day and just like yesterday he revived his hopes, moving to two-under-par thanks to three birdies. But a pair of missed greens led to two bogeys to close that allowed Varner III and Frittelli to remain alive with pairs of pars. The American shot to contention with a 66 on Saturday, while the South African recovered from a wicked front nine of 40 on Sunday to return to even-par.
"I drew on yesterday as well," Holman said. "To be able to play a really good round after that double-bogey, it was the same thing yesterday. I felt quite edgy going out there, maybe because I'd been [in contention] a few times in the recent weeks ... This was my second-last event for the year and I was running out of time. I felt like I deserved a really good finish. My best finish before this was a tied-11th this year but I felt like I'd played quite a bit better than that all year but never really had a chance on Sunday, although playing quite nicely."
For a while it looked like the players had shown up for an Australian PGA Championship and a US Open broke out instead. The three overnight leaders all hit reverse early on Sunday and twice during the final round there were no players in red figures, including after the full 72 holes. Nathan Holman might be the new champion but course architect Graham Marsh, who masterminded the redesign, could just as easily be declared the winner after the highest winning tally at the PGA since Bob Shearer's 288 at Royal Melbourne in 1983.
The overall difficulty of the course cannot be undersold. While there was a 64 and a 66 carded throughout the week, it was impossible for any player to sustain precious forward momentum. Consider Rhein Gibson, who crafted that 64 on Friday. His other three rounds were 79, 79 and 76. There was also a dire shortage of putts holed aboard the new greens. Brandt Snedeker, who shot 84-75 in a miserable return appearance in Australia and is one of the game's best putters, said he made nothing outside five feet for his two rounds.
The glittering but gimmicky million-dollar hole-in-one on offer at the par-3 16th on Sunday didn't go off, although Victorian Matthew Griffin came within six inches with his tee shot. A mere five birdies were carded there all day, let alone an ace.
So this year's Triple Crown events were claimed by a fiftysomething, a thirtysomething and a twentysomething in yet another brilliant illustration of the beautiful unpredictability of golf. For Nathan Holman, this victory immediately elevates his standing in the game and his career prospects in one amazing week.