Joost Luiten’s winning edge at the close of the European Tour’s inaugural NBO Oman Open was a reasonably comfortable two shots. But it was even closer than that.
Two holes before he would two-putt for a rock-solid par on the final green to shoot a closing 68 and end the ultimately despairing challenge of Englishman Chris Wood, the 32-year-old from the Netherlands was standing over a 25-foot putt for birdie on the par-5 16th at the Greg Norman-designed Al Mouj course. Wood, then the other co-leader at 15-under, was up ahead and about to drive from the penultimate tee.
Things changed pretty quickly. Moments after Wood hooked his tee-shot into a water hazard, Luiten rolled in his putt to regain the lead he had earlier relinquished with bogeys on the seventh and eighth holes. And when Wood could do no better than a bogey, the eventual margin of victory was established. Perhaps the only moment of doubt came when Luiten, 90th on the World Ranking, pulled his approach left of the 17th green. Not exactly the most accomplished chipper in professional golf, the now six-time European Tour champion saved par by putting close from the relatively heavy fringe grass.
“This is why I play golf, to hold trophies,” said Luiten, whose previous victory came in his homeland at the 2016 KLM Open. “It is always tough to win out here. And today was a nice battle with my friend, ‘Woody.’ There was a lot of pressure today, but down the stretch I hit some nice shots and made some good putts. I did drop a couple of silly ones going out. My aim after that was just to create chances and hopefully take a few.
“The putt on 16 really closed the door on the other guys. I wasn’t tempted to go for the green in two. I played that hole smart. As for the Ryder Cup, I need to win a couple more times to have a chance. But if I play more good golf, you never know what might happen.”
For all his obvious disappointment at not picking up what would have been his fourth victory as a professional, Wood was encouraged by this long-awaited return to something like his best form. Down to 51st on last season’s Race to Dubai and having missed the halfway cut in all three of his most recent European Tour appearances, the lanky Englishman arrived in the Gulf State ranked a lowly 109th in the world. Less than two years ago, he was the BMW PGA champion and, when he hunted current World No.1, Dustin Johnson, to the final green in the Sunday singles at the last Ryder Cup, was himself ranked as high as 32nd.
Later this week, the European Tour will feature what is likely to be the last-ever Qatar Masters. As a result, look for Oman to link up with Abu Dhabi and Dubai in 2019 to form what will be a three-week long “Middle East Swing.”