Australian Jake Higginbottom became the first amateur golfer for 56 years to be crowned New Zealand Open champion with his one-shot victory in the BMW-sponsored tournament hosted by Christchurch at Clearwater on Sunday.
Fellow Australian Harry Berwick achieved that feat also in Christchurch, but at Shirley, in 1956 that win coming two years after left-handed Bob Charles had won his country’s showpiece event as an amateur.
Higginbottom, a 19-year-old from New South Wales, started the final round three shots adrift of Mark Brown, New Zealand’s main hope of ending a drought of nine years since a Kiwi held aloft the winner’s silverware, the Brodie Breeze Trophy.
But his final round five under par 67 was good enough for a one shot win from Australian professionals Jason Norris and Peter Wilson who took home in the $A56,400 each from the event.
“It is a great feeling and it means a lot me,” said the 19-year-odl from Sydney.
“It is good to come over here and play against the professionals and know that I am as good as them.”
Had Higginbottom won he would have earned $A72,000.
He spoke with his parents shortly after who were emotional after his win.
“Mum was crying and Dad was just happy that I made a good speech….he is an idiot,” laughed the Aussie.
The teenager, who hit his approach shot into the water in round two when he was leading, showed nerves of steel on the final time coming down 18 with a massive drive.
“I actually talked about the 18thwith my mates before the final round. They asked me what I would do if I had a one shot lead down the last and I told them I would just rip one down there.
“I was most nervous when I had that short putt on the last but it was nice to see that drop and to win is really good.”
After an inauspicious start where he bogeyed the first hole, Higginbottom reeled off eight birdies with his only other blemish being a bogey at the par-3 16th.
“It was good to be a couple behind after the front nine because I knew that I had to make birdies. That is what I did so it was good.”
His play was laced with pin-point approaches and steady putting and he showed no signs of nerves playing alongside professionals with birdies at 13, 14, 15 and 17 giving him a one-shot lead playing the last.
The final hole ranks among the toughest finishing holes on any championship course with water down the left and fairway bunkers down the right, but Higginbottom never wavered, putting his approach to 6m and holing the par putt from less than a metre.
That kept him a shot ahead of fellow Australians Norris and Wilson. Norris fired seven birdies in his round of 66 and fellow Victorian Wilson slotted a long birdie putt at the last to join him on six-under 282, a shot ahead of fourth-placed Brown.
No two days in golf are ever the same and Brown would attest to that after a final round in sharp contrast to his third round on Saturday when he fired seven birdies and just one bogey in his six-under 66.
He had good birdie chances on the first two holes to get the momentum going, but they slid by and nothing really happened for him until he broke a run of pars with a birdie at the seventh. That was to be his only birdie for the day.
Pars at the eighth and ninth had him two ahead of three Australians starting the back nine, but Brown seldom hit his approach shots close enough on the homeward half to set up birdies and bogeys on 11 and 13 – through a three-putt on 11 and double bunker trouble two holes later – had him off the top of the leaderboard.
Brown joined a notable list of New Zealanders including Brad Heaven in 2004, Michael Campbell in 2006 and Josh Geary last year who came agonisingly close to claiming the coveted title but that honour still belongs to Mahal Pearce who prevailed at Middlemore, Auckland, in 2003.
Frustration was how Brown summed up his day.
“I played well enough, I played beautifully for first 10 holes and didn’t miss a shot,” said the 37-year-old.
“But I only really holed one putt and had 34 for the day which is never going to win a golf tournament.
He couldn’t explain why his putting failed to match Saturday’s round when he needed only 28.
“I don’t know. I didn’t start them on line so there’s a technical issue there. I gave myself a lot of chances and think I hit 33 greens for the last 36 holes so that’s a lot of chances I didn’t take.
“It’s frustration and probably been a career thing for me so I’ve got to get better if I want to reach the goals I want to meet. I’ll go away, work hard, and try and get better.’”
Brown said the calm conditions did not suit him and the wind he was hoping for never eventuated.
His one-over 73 and four-round total of 284, four-under par, was still good enough for him to finish as leading New Zealander, one shot ahead of Auckland professional
Richard Lee, who mixed five birdies with two bogeys in his three-under 69 which left him alone in fifth place.
The 2003 champion Pearce and Michael Hendry, one of the pre-tournament favourites along with Brown and Australian Nic Cullen, finished in a tie for 10thon even par.