Nobody beats Richard Bland more than 477 times in a row. Finally putting an end to almost two decades of professional futility, the 48-year-old Englishman is at last a winner on the European Tour.
In his 478th start, Bland shot a final round of 66 at The Belfry on Saturday to reach 13-under par for the week. His 72-hole aggregate of 275 over the 7,310-yard Brabazon course – climaxed by a 28-foot putt for birdie across the final green – was pursued by many but matched only by Italian Guido Migliozzi (68) at the close of what was ultimately a crowded and pulsating race to be British Masters champion.
The tie didn’t last long. After Bland putted almost dead from the back of the 18th green, Migliozzi’s clumsy three-putt bogey was enough to bring the playoff to a swift conclusion.
Understandably, Bland was close to tears in the immediate aftermath of what will be an almost universally popular victory. Now the oldest first-time winner on tour, he was clearly somewhat relieved to have unloaded what must have felt like a pack of monkeys off his back.
In an interview with Tim Barter of Sky Sports – who doubles as Bland’s long-time swing coach – Bland could barely speak at times. Which is understandable. Only three years ago he was back on the Challenge Tour after losing his card. Now he is exempt on the main tour through the end of 2022.
“My game has been trending in the right way,” said Bland of a performance that included only one dropped shot over the four days. “I came off a decent performance last week and a top-10 in Gran Canaria. I’ve worked really hard on my wedges. And I drove the ball so well this week with my old driver. I’m far from the longest on tour, so I have to hit the fairways. I’ve missed only a few here and when I did it was by inches. So I was swinging well. I don’t have any sort of big ‘miss’, so I’m always going to be there or thereabouts.
“I went back to the Challenge Tour because I had nothing else to do for the four years until I turned 50. I just got my head down and did the job. I wasn’t there to make friends. It was all about getting back to where I feel like I belong. Now I have an exemption. I can’t believe it.”
For the record, this was Bland’s 32nd top-10 finish. Three of those were runner-ups, the most recent at the 2017 BMW International Open in Germany. So he’s been close, without being able to light up anything, never mind a cigar. Still, financially at least, he hasn’t done too badly. The €339,278 cheque he picked up for this long-awaited victory takes his career-earnings to just less than €6 million.
Amid the obvious emotion that carried Bland to victory, there was more of the same a little lower on the leaderboard. Former Ryder Cup player Chris Wood – almost three years removed from his most recent top-20 finish – got himself round in 70 and pulled up in a tie for 11th place. For a man whose form had so drastically deserted him, this was confirmation that his long-term recovery plan is on the right track.
“I can relate to what Richard is feeling for sure,” said Wood, who was part of Darren Clarke’s losing European team at Hazeltine in the 2016 Ryder Cup. “That was hard out there for me today. And yes, a big step up. I didn’t really have my ‘A’ game. But mentally I was on top of it. I ground out that score. I got up-and-down a few times and hit a couple of great bunker shots. I’m massively proud of myself. This is another hurdle for me. A top-10, which I’ve just missed, was the next realistic target, given where I have been. I’m on the right track and hopefully on schedule to get back to where I want to be.”
Which is where Richard Bland is now. At last.
PHOTO: Andrew Redington