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By John Huggan
Two things were immediately obvious at the conclusion of the Belgian Knock-Out. First, the European Tour’s latest venture into an untried and innovative format —after 36 holes of stroke-play the leading 64 players qualified for the six series of nine-hole matches that ultimately pared the field down to the eventual champion—worked refreshingly well. Large crowds enjoyed the golf, the sunshine and the opportunity to follow the players, at a discreet distance, down the fairways. In that respect at least, it was just like old times during Belgium’s first European Tour event in 18 years.
Secondly, it is clear that Adrian Otaegui is one tough competitor when it comes to head-to-head matches. Following up his victory at the now-defunct Paul Lawrie Match Play last year, the 25-year-old Spaniard, who calls Dubai home, beat Benjamin Hebert of France to claim the €166,660 (AED 718,500) first prize.
Four birdies in five holes from the fourth hole on the delightful Rinkven International Golf Club course just outside Antwerp were the keys to Otaegui’s victory. Armed with a two-stroke edge standing on the last tee, the former British Boys champion, another match-play event, boldly took driver down the narrow 424-yard par 4 and was rewarded with an easy half in 4 to clinch his second European Tour title.
“I’m very relaxed now,” said a smiling Otaegui, after his sixth top-20 finish in succession, a run that includes a runner-up spot in the Volvo China Open. “But the last nine holes were very tense. I’m not sure what it is about me and match play. This week I just tried to play against myself and focus on my own game. And it worked.”
In the third-place match, Scotland’s David Drysdale edged home by a shot against the unlikely figure of James Heath. Ranked a subterranean 159th on the “Race to Dubai,” the Englishman had arrived in Belgium on the back of seven missed cuts in his last eight events. The €50,000 Heath pocketed is the biggest payday of his 14-year professional career and had the added bonus of earning his first invite into this week’s BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.
One last thing. While the second half of the event was not pure match play, there remained room for some of peculiarities inherent to knock-out contests. Take the quarterfinals. In going down narrowly by one shot to Heath, the last Belgian extant, Nicolas Colsaerts, was two under par for the nine holes. Which was doubly unlucky for the former Ryder Cupper. His score would have beaten all six players in the other three matches. In contrast, Drysdale edged through at the same stage against Victor Perez of France despite being a very average two over par, a score that would have lost to every one of the other competitors. Such is golf.