Big-hitting Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts defied fierce winds and a battling Graeme McDowell to capture the World Match Play Championship on Sunday, boosting his chances of making Europe’s Ryder Cup team.
Colsaerts won a painstakingly slow final 1 up in southern Spain to claim his second European Tour title and earn a winner’s check of $900,000, taking him above ?1 million in prize money for the second straight season.
McDowell, the 2010 U.S Open champion and seeking a first title since December of that year, bounced back after falling 1 down three times on the front nine but cut a frustrated figure on the long closing stretch with his errant iron play constantly letting him down.
Colsaerts established a two-hole lead after No. 16 and although his advantage was halved when he three-putted the next to indicate the pressure he was under, he parred the last to win one of the most prestigious titles on the calendar.
”I can’t feel anything at the moment,” he said. ”To have my name next to so many major winners is a dream come true.”
The victory lifted Colsaerts into 10th place in the Ryder Cup points table – the last automatic spot for the European team – but perhaps more importantly demonstrated to team captain Jose Maria Olazabal his prowess at match play ahead of the September contest against the United States in Medinah near Chicago.
It would be Colsaert’s first appearance for Europe and would cap a successful season in which he has grabbed seven top-10 finishes in 11 events – the most of any player so far.
”It’s always been a dream of mine to play in a Ryder Cup,” Colsaerts said. ” I know I am well placed but there’s still a long way to go.”
Colsaerts is the longest hitter on tour – overtaking Alvaro Quiros of Spain in that department this season – and his power and distance off the tee came in handy all week on the long Finca Cortesin course, but especially on Sunday when winds blew as strong in the afternoon as 30mph.
It forced both finalists to constantly back off from their shots, meaning their round took more than 4 1/2 hours. Organizers had earlier taken all four semifinalists off the course because of the threat of lightning, causing a suspension of an hour. Stamina ended up proving just as important as skill.
Having come from 4 down after four holes in his semifinal against Paul Lawrie to eventually win at the second playoff hole, the 29-year-old Colsaerts — whose grandfather played basketball and water polo for Belgium at the 1920 Olympics — was never behind in a final that lacked star quality.
”The conditions were brutal – you had to grind it out,” Colsaerts said. ”These two games today really killed me.”
After going 2 up on No. 13 and with an ideal closing stretch for a heavy hitter, Colsaerts looked in good shape but McDowell birdied the next before his opponent three-putted on the long par-4 No. 15.
However, McDowell’s momentum was checked when he hooked his second shot on No. 16 left, annoying him so much that he threw his fairway wood to the ground. He missed a 12-foot putt for a half and left himself 2 down with two to play.
”`The elements played a huge part,” McDowell said. ”I’m disappointed that they probably came out the winner today rather than the two players.
”They really played into his hands the way he drove the ball. He’s got a great wind game and he’s a fantastic talent. I got beat by the better man.”
Colsaerts breathed new life into the match when he three-putted No. 17 to reduce his lead 1 up. But the par-5 last has been the Belgian’s friend this week and after he hit another booming drive, McDowell overhit a wedge to the green leaving Colsaerts two putts to become the first Belgian to win twice on the European Tour.
Colsaerts only emerged from his group after a playoff victory on Friday over Charl Schwartzel – which he nearly missed after taking a nap following his second group match.
McDowell was taken to the last by home favorite Rafael Cabrera-Bello in their semifinal and showed signs of fatigue against Colsaerts, who beat him at the quarterfinal stage here in 2011.