Soren Kjeldsen completes his return from obscurity to take Irish Open
Dane holds nerve on first extra hole to see off Eddie Pepperell and Bernd Wiesberger
Irish Open winner Soren Kjeldsen kisses the trophy. Photo: Matt Mackey/Inpho
An ugly old day on the links brought a terrible beauty for Soren Kjeldsen, a man returned from obscurity. As strong winds and intermittent bursts of heavy rain derailed others chasing one of the oldest titles on the European Tour, the great Dane – who stands at exactly 5’ 7¾” – showed terrier-like tenacity to defeat Eddie Pepperell and Bernd Wiesberger with a birdie at the first hole of sudden-death.
In the end, Kjeldsen stood tallest of all. As he received the crystal trophy, his victory in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open hosted by the Rory Foundation ending a six-year drought since his last tour win, the Dane first cradled it and then kissed it; he was entitled to, for it had been darn hard won.
A common fixture in all of the big championships a number of years ago, when he featured in the world’s top 50, Kjeldsen – bothered by a wrist injury – had slipped down the rankings. He was 303rd in the world heading to the famed links at the foot of Slieve Donard where, he believed, a social visit with friends a number of years ago would reap benefits.
“Even though our yardage books are incredibly detailed, and very good, it’s impossible to put everything down on paper . . . having played it before helped me,” said Kjeldsen, who also had a new caddie of just three weeks on his bag, Alistair Matheson, an Aussie who previously worked with Geoff Ogilvy when he won the US Open in 2006. The relationship has had immediate reward, but only after the Dane regrouped ahead of the play-off.
Kjeldsen had wobbled down the final stretch, a three-putt bogey on the 17th and two heavy-handed chips on the 18th – eventually rescuing a par five as the ball ran around the rim before falling into the tin cup – led to a final round 77 for 285, two-under-par. Pepperell, who had shot a bogey-free 69, and Wiesberger, who finished with a 73, had beat him to the clubhouse on that mark.
This was not a day for the faint-hearted, as the course played to an average of 74.6 – more than three strokes above its par – and potential disaster loomed around every hillock and on every green. “It’s borderline too difficult,” Graeme McDowell had claimed, while Darren Clarke claimed the course was “verging on the unplayable.”
The eighth, a Par 4, with an exposed green which hadn’t been cut since Saturday morning in an attempt to militate against balls oscillating, played to an average of 4.61 in the final round. And it was there, on the eighth, that a double-bogey six almost brought about Kjeldsen’s downfall. “I was leaking shots,” he later admitted, and believed that he had lost the chance of claiming the title.
A look at the on-course leaderboard, though, showed Kjeldsen that although haemorrhaging shots to the course, he was still very much in the title hunt. He rolled up his sleeves, kept to his task and survived a nervy finish where his approach to the 18th missed the green left and he then pitched through into a swale on the other side – “I was too cute” – and had to make an up-and-down for par to get into the play-off. “I couldn’t believe I still had a chance to win, it was a bonus. I certainly had no doubt what I felt I needed to do.”
One thing Kjeldsen had to his advantage returning to the Par 5 18th was that he was the last player to finish. “I was a bit stiff on the tee,” admitted Wiesberger, who pushed his tee shot right beyond the packed galleries lining the fairway. It was very much advantage Kjeldsen, who found the fairway and hit a three-wood approach from 243 yards to 25 feet. “I absolutely nailed it,” he said. The first putt finished three feet away, and again the ball took its time before deciding to drop.
Where others had struggled over the four days in the strong winds, Kjeldsen revelled in the conditions. “I love playing in the wind. With my game, I shape shots, I hit it low and I rely a lot on my short game . . . I think this type of golf certainly suits my game better than maybe playing in the desert!”
The win reopens doors for Kjeldsen, who earns his place in the British Open at St Andrews in July along with his ticket into the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational later in the season. Pepperell and Tyrell Hatton earned the two other Open exemptions on offer.
In what transpired to be a disappointing tournament for the Irish players, certainly in terms of finishing positions, Clarke emerged as the leading home player in tied-28th. On this occasion, it was the rejuvenated Dane who had most to cherish.