As the winless months rolled into years, Chris Williams seriously started to doubt if he had the mental fortitude required to triumph at the top level again. If he’s honest, the only real unknown had become at what point in the final round he’d bottle another winning position.
The South African had recorded 39 top-10s in eight seasons on the European Senior Tour – nine of them podium finishes – yet had only once converted the consistency into a shiny trophy for the mantlepice.
On Saturday, six long years after that victory at the 2011 Brunei Senior Masters, when a closing 64 illuminated his undoubted talent, Williams finally remembered how to close again to become the inaugural Sharjah Senior Golf Masters champion.
“Words fail me,” said Williams who started his week at Sharjah Golf & Shooting Club with a course record 65 and then overcame his inner deamons with a closing 68 and steely nerves to see off Englishman Gary Marks in a playoff.
“After being eight years on the Tour and finally getting my second win after all these years is just amazing.
“I’ve been playing well and scoring well in South Africa leading up to this event, playing in as many pro-ams as I could to keep my game sharp with a scorecard in my back pocket. So that gave me a lot of confidence before this week.”
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Sick of wasting his obvious talent, Williams recently sought the counsel of a sports psychologist used by Brandon Stone among other “young” main tour South Africans. He’d never doubted his swing but needed to find a way to negotiate a way around the mental brick wall. It seems he may have done just that.
Williams made it look easy Saturday – the dark sunglasses helped project that calm exterior – but it was anything but. Countryman James Kingston, who eventually finished tied third with Swede Magnus P Altevi, was his main concern for much of the final round. Then Marks came at Williams with three birdies on the bounce from the 13th.
By the time they reached the 54th hole, Williams (who had led by as many as four shots) needed to make a sand save par from an awkward lie in the bunker guarding the left hand side of SGSC’s 9/18th hole just to make the playoff. He later described it as the very best of his 203 winning strokes, a -13 total matched by Marks.
When Marks inexplicably three-putted the first hole of overtime, Williams seized his chance by stroking home a four-footer. It was an early $64,000 birthday present sure to make his 58th celebrations back in South African on Monday extra special.
Williams caught fire early to negotiate the front nine in just 32 blows, which included a spellbinding run of birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie from the fourth to the seventh. After holing out from the greenside bunker on the sixth for eagle in the first round he repeated the feat Saturday with a holed sand wedge from 90 yards.
“I got off to a great start today,” said Williams. “I was five under through seven holes and then Gary came back with three birdies on the back nine. But nothing is easy out here, you’ve got to work hard for these wins no matter where they are.”
Marks was disappointed not to grasp his best victory chance when a birdie putt on the last hole of regulation burned the left edge of the cup. But he took plenty of positives from his season-opener performance.
“I was thrilled to get in the play-off – it was obviously a sad way for it to end for me, – but it was much more than I could have hoped for coming to the tournament as I hadn’t been playing before this week.”
Atlevi, last season’s order of merit runner-up and rookie-of-the-year, has started the new season strongly after finishing -12 alongside Kingston who enjoyed his equal best senior tour finish despite a topsy-turvy final round. Kingston’s closing 70 included a miracle birdie on the par 5 15th where he hooked his drive into the water, snapped his driver over his knee in frustration, took a penalty drop, boomed a three wood just shy of the green and proceeded to hole the chip. In the end a bogey on the previous hole, when he was lucky not to find further water with a pushed drive, proved costly.
England’s Roger Chapman finished fifth at -10 under and reigning European Senior Tour No.1 and Senior Open Champion Paul Broadhurst a shot further back in sixth.
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