They all came to the Old Course to cheer the world’s leading golfer Rory McIlroy to yet another victory, but it was England’s Oliver Wilson who went away with the respect of the Scottish galleries after winning the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship by one shot.
An emotional Oliver, who lost his European Tour card in 2011 and was playing in the championship as an invitee, was hugged by his wife Lauren as he came to terms with the enormity of his success, which now gives him a two-year exemption on the European Tour.
She had flown to St Andrews from London without telling him and was there to celebrate with him when he walked off the 18th green.
Ranked 792nd in the world at the beginning of the week, it was a deserving win for the unassuming Englishman, who had also led the tournament after the first round last year, but had finished 59th.
He said: “So many people had written me off and that hurt, but I kept believing. A lot of people had a part in this and I can’t thank them enough. This is pretty special.
“It’s been a long time coming and I have a lot of champagne on hold. It’s going to be a good party. To have the invite to play here, I can’t thank people enough.
“When I came here at the start of the week I was just trying to make the cut and each day my confidence grew. I didn’t play as well today, but I finished second in 2009 and I knew what to do and I was pleased how I stood up to hit some really good shots.”
The tournament, conceived as a celebration of links golf, is played over three of the world’s best known and respected links courses – the Old Course at St Andrews, the Championship Course at Carnoustie and the highly regarded Kingsbarns Golf Links.
Wilson’s two-under-par 70 was hardly spectacular, but for a man who had finished second nine times in his career, he showed enormous courage to keep his game together and hold off challenges from McIlroy, Scotland’s Richie Ramsay and England’s Tommy Fleetwood, who all shared second place.
McIlroy gave himself a mountain to climb as early as the first hole when his approach shot spun back into the Swilken Burn and resulted in a double bogey six. He fought his way back with six birdies during the course of the round, but the challenge ended at the 17th when he putted into the Road Hole bunker and dropped a shot, eventually finishing with a four-under-par 68.
He said: “I feel like I cost myself the tournament today. They are the only mistakes that I made all day. I didn’t leave myself much of a chance on the Road Hole. If you’re going to miss it, you need to miss it right there and I didn’t. I love this golf course. I feel like I play well here every time I tee it up, so I am looking forward to coming back here in July and defending the Open Championship.”
Ramsay, looking to become the fourth Scottish winner of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, appeared to have put himself into the driving seat when he went two ahead at the 15th, but successive bogeys at the 16th and 17th undermined his challenge. His five-under-par 67 was a creditable enough performance, but not quite good enough.
He said: “I’m disappointed with the result obviously but it has been a really successful week. I nearly got it done and it was great to be playing well in front of such a great home crowd. You have to take your hat off to Ollie – he got the job done in what was a huge week for him and he has really turned his career around.”
Tommy Fleetwood, playing with Wilson, had an eight-foot putt for a birdie at the 18th to make it a sudden death play-off, but the ball rolled agonisingly past the hole.
He said: “I was just that little bit short which is always disappointing, but I think you always have to put it in perspective that you’ve just come second in a huge event. From where I was starting Saturday morning, it’s an amazing finish and I think I holed my fair share of putts over the last few days.
“That one at the last wasn’t a very good putt and that’s just what happens. Fair play to Ollie though. I’m delighted for him.”
With a prize fund of US$5 million, the championship incorporates two separate competitions – an individual professional tournament for the world’s leading golfers and a team event in which the professionals are paired with some of the most celebrated amateur golfers which creates a unique atmosphere.
Among those making it through to the final round of the Team Championship were sports stars Tim Henman, Sir Steve Redgrave and Brian O’Driscoll, US rock star Huey Lewis and race horse owner J.P.McManus, but it was J.P’s son Kieran McManus, playing with Irish professional Peter Lawrie, who won by one shot with a betterball score of 37-under-par. McManus also won in 2009 with Swedish professional Soren Hansen.
Lawrie missed the cut in the individual tournament but he still had the significant consolation of a US$50,000 cheque after he and McManus went round the Old Course in a betterball 61.
“Winning the team title feels great,” said Lawrie, who won the 2008 Spanish Open but was in 173rd place in the Race to Dubai, before this week.
“We knew we had to go low today to have a chance of finishing on top of the team event, and it is very pleasing to be able to do it. We both played very well today.”
In a keenly-contested Team Championship, there were also high finishes for Huey Lewis and his professional partner and fellow American Peter Uihlein, who tied for fifth alongside Rory McIlroy and his father Gerry, who was celebrating his 55th birthday in great golfing style.
Tennis star Tim Henman was in a tie for 10th with individual event runner-up Tommy Fleetwood, while Irish rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll marked his debut in the tournament by finishing tied 12th with his partner, England’s Oliver Fisher. Sir Steve Redgrave, Britain’s greatest Olympic rower, ended up in a tie for 17th place alongside another English professional,Chris Wood.
This is the 30th year in which Alfred Dunhill has supported golf in St Andrews, beginning in 1985 with the Alfred Dunhill Cup, then from 2001 with the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.