At last, the Van drove to victory.
Van Phillips has come close to winning for some time on the European Tour. He's been good for two or three decent rounds, but Phillips has never been able to go the extra mile.
Now he has. His nerve held out Sunday as he beat John Bickerton on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff to claim his first professional victory at the Portuguese Algarve Open.
Phillips, 26, seemed to be fighting a lost cause as he trailed Bickerton by two strokes through 14 holes of the closing round, but he clawed back by picking up a birdie on the 15th.
| Phillips shows the first winner's trophy of his pro career. (AP)|
Bickerton was one shot ahead as the 17th approached, and the tournament was his for the winning. But he dropped a shot on the 17th, pulling his drive so far left that he avoided the line of trees bordering the fairway and finished up on clear ground beyond them.
He had no sight of the green, but probably did about as well as he could by leaving himself with a pitch of no more than 60 yards to the pin. But he compounded his error by pitching 20 feet past the hole. He needed two putts to get down from there. Suddenly Phillips, who had a rock-solid par four, was on level terms again.
It was Pivotal Moment No 1, but not the last one. On the 18th, Bickerton split the fairway with his drive while Phillips went a long way left behind trees. He was 200 yards from the flag, with no sight of the green. He had to take up his stance on a cart path and bend the ball a long, long way to stand any chance of hitting the putting surface.
It was quite a challenge and, gloriously, he was up to it. He could have taken relief as his ball sat on ground under repair, but he rejected the option because he would have been even more blocked out by the woodwork.
Instead, he took up his slippery stance on the path, swung smoothly with his 4-iron, imparted a 30-yard cut on the ball and broke cover at a sprint to watch in delight as it sighed to a halt 30 feet from the flag. It was the sort of shot Seve Ballesteros used to play almost as a matter of routine. But Phillips is no Seve.
Even after Phillips's miracle shot, he could have foundered. He putted first and left his ball 18 inches short. Bickerton, on the same line but a dozen feet closer to the cup, should have learnt something from Phillips's putt, but didn't.
The one thing he could not afford to do as he addressed his eagle putt was leave his ball short -- so he left it short. Only by a couple of rolls, maybe, but two rolls might as well be two feet. The consequence was that he played the hole about as well as he could have but finished up no better off than Phillips. Pivotal Moment No 2 had gone Phillips's way, too.
So did Pivotal Moment No 3. On the first extra hole, Bickerton was visited again by the spectre of the 17th. This time he hit a decent drive and was not even in too much potential trouble when he missed the green right with his second.
It was only now, with the flag no more than 20 yards away, that things became seriously unpleasant. Bickerton faced a regulation chip over a bunker with plenty of spare ground to play with beyond it. Finesse was not required, but he attempted it and succeeded only in duffing his ball into the sand.
| A poor tee shot in sudden death cost Bickerton a chance at victory. (AP)|
Phillips, meanwhile, was making sure he did nothing extravagant -- down the middle, on the green, first putt from 18 feet, second from two. Par was enough because Bickerton's trap shot pulled up six feet short.
So Phillips, once known less for his golf and more for the fact that he wore a tie on the course as a part of a sponsorship deal with Tie Rack, finally made the breakthrough he has been threatening for some time. "I always felt I had the temperament to win, but thought it was never going to happen," he said. "Now I just feel relieved that I've finally done it."
Meanwhile, Bickerton, for so long the pacemaker, was trying to console himself with the fact that his second-placed finish had promoted him from 22nd place in the European Ryder Cup points list to 13th. This was his third, and best, top-10 finish of the season, but in the immediate aftermath of defeat, he was understandably more preoccupied with the errors that cost him the tournament.
"So near and yet so far," he said. "I thought I had done all the hard work on the last, but then Van pulled out that great shot. Going back to the 17th was tough."
"Once I got it in play again off the tee I thought I'd got it cracked, and it was silly to muck it up from there. It's disappointing to be beaten after my last two rounds, but if I go on playing like this, hopefully Ill go one better soon."
So another week ended in a small letdown for Bickerton, who finished ninth in the South African Open in January, fourth in the Qatar Masters in February and now second in March. And, just to complete an ultimately unhappy afternoon under the Portuguese sun, he was even stung on the left arm by a bee as he addressed his putt on the ninth. That was just the start of his troubles. l day.