On a packed final-round leaderboard – six players began the day tied for first – it was always going to take something special to break out of the sizeable throng gathered at or near the apex of the Oman Open.
Or somethings special. Which is how it turned out. Even before they embarked on what would eventually be a three-hole playoff for the title, Brandon Stone and Sami Valimaki both made lengthy putts for unlikely 3s at the 425-metre par-4 72nd hole. Those birdies took the South African and the young Finn (playing in only his sixth European Tour event) to 13-under par, one shot clear of Frenchman Adrien Saddier. As many as 13 others finished within five shots of the playoff pair.
Pars each on the aforementioned 18th in the first two playoff holes, necessitated a third to settle the destination of the first-place cheque. And it was Stone, a three-time European Tour winner, who blinked, pulling his approach left of the green, then failing to get up-and-down to match Valimaki’s solid two-putt par. That 4 was, in fact, only the new champion’s sixth par in his last 15 holes; his two-under 70 in the final round over the Al Mouj Golf Course included seven birdies, three bogeys and a double-bogey 6 at the ninth that had appeared to end his victory chances.
Two more bogeys would follow for Valimaki, who only 18 months ago was doing his national service in the Finnish army, but four birdies more than made up for those mistakes. More crucially, none of the principal challengers could match his two-under-par aggregate over the closing four holes. Where most were faltering, he was flourishing.
“It’s awesome,” was Valimaki’s understandably almost speechless initial reaction. “There are not many words to say, it’s unbelievable. After the ninth hole, when I made a double, I knew that the 10th hole is good and I had to make a birdie on that. I didn’t make a really good par on 11 and after that bogey I felt like, ‘OK, this is gone.’ But then I just grinded, made three birdies and on the last, an awesome birdie.”
While the field he had to beat in Oman was far from the best the European Tour has to offer – not one of the 17 men who finished in the top 10 ranked inside the world’s top 100 and only three were inside the top 150 – Valimaki’s progress up the professional ladder has so far been remarkably swift. Following the example of former world No.1 Martin Kaymer, the 21-year-old was last year a four-time winner on what was the Germany-based EPD Tour and is now the Pro Golf Tour, a feat that earned him promotion to last year’s European Challenge circuit. He got his European Tour card at Q-school last year, and a T-7 finish at the recent ISPS Handa Vic Open in Australia hinted at a burgeoning potential that has been further underlined with this victory.