Many great golfing things have happened at The Belfry over the years, mostly during the four Ryder Cups that have taken place at PGA Headquarters in the English Midlands. But those biennial encounters between Europe and the United States only had two possible winners.
This Betfred British Masters (hosted for the first of what will be five occasions by six-time major champion, Nick Faldo) was different in a way that took on a life of its own during an epic closing round, one that belied the seemingly downbeat presence of only eight members of the world’s top-100 players.
Six men were tied for the 54-hole lead, a fact that provoked the DP World Tour media department to send out two e-mails (“Winner’s Briefing Notes”) containing details on as many as nine possible champions. With the second attempt they seemed to have every possibility covered.
But they didn’t.
Step forward Daniel Hillier. The New Zealander started his fourth circuit of the premises outside the top 10, albeit he was only four shots off the pace on a packed leader board. That was to change, of course, albeit eventually. Even with four holes to play, the 24-year-old from Porirua was five under par for the tournament and three shots off the pace set by Gunner Wiebe. The 34-year-old American, son of former Senior Open champion Mark Wiebe had earlier nipped round in a six-under-par 66, a score that contained a triple bogey alongside seven birdies and an eagle. Like we said, it was all happening.
Not quite everything though. Indeed, we should have known better. One year on from Thorbjorn Olesen’s sensational eagle-birdie finish to snatch one of the former European Tour’s most historic titles, Hillier apparently found a conveniently located phone booth and emerged dressed as a golfing Superman.
An eagle at the par-5 15th was followed by a birdie at the par-4 16th, then another eagle at the long 17th. Suddenly, the tournament was Hillier’s to lose. Which he did not. After his approach to the iconic 18th green finished inches from the oddly-located trophy at the rear of the green, the two-time Challenge Tour winner got down in two putts from long range to clinch the $595,000 winner’s check. His ten-under par aggregate of 278 was two shots clear of the two runners-up, Wiebe and former Ryder Cup player Oliver Wilson. Both were one-shot clear of a four-strong group that included former US Open champion, Justin Rose.
Still, the 34-year old Wiebe, once an assistant professional at the Bel-Air Country Club and playing in only his 18th DP World Tour event, did have the consolation of joining Hillier and Wilson in claiming the three exempt spots available in this month’s Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. For him, it will be a sentimental as well as exciting visit to the Hoylake links. It was there that the elder Wiebe, twice a winner on the PGA Tour, played his last major championship in 2014.
“I’m a bit lost for words,” said Hillier, who arrived at The Belfry on the back of a promising T-3 finish at last week’s BMW International Open in Munich. “I was playing pretty well coming in here but I knew in the conditions it was going to be a bit of a grind. I just kept telling myself to hang in there, even if, early on, I wasn’t really feeling it today. I’m not sure what happened over those last few holes. It will take a while to process.
“On 15, I had an awkward lie for my second shot,” continued the third Kiwi (after Bob Charles and Greg Turner) to win the British Masters. “But I got it on the green to about 40-feet. The putt was racing but it hit the back of the hole and went in. That was a bonus.”
As was the birdie on 16, where Hillier found sand off the tee before striking his approach to less than four feet. The eagle on 17 was not without its good fortune either, a fortuitous nudge off the front left bunker left a ten-footer that struggled in the right side.
“I was a bit lucky there,’ was Hillier’s verdict. “And I just had to hang on down the last. I felt really comfortable over the putt for par and read it well. I just had to make one more good stroke.”
Which was, given events of the previous 45 minutes, just about the only predictable moment on one of The Belfry’s most exciting days.