Alex Noren started the final round of the Nedbank Golf Challenge at Sun City on Sunday six strokes behind the leader and said he didn’t feel he had any chance of winning.
But the 34-year-old Swede immediately birdied the first three holes and set about producing a dazzling front nine of just 30 strokes.
As if that wasn’t good enough, he then eagled the 10th hole and birdied 11 to go to nine-under-par for his round. Suddenly, he was three strokes ahead of overnight leader Jeunghun Wang.
Although he completed the last seven holes in level-par, it was enough for him to double his lead by the end of the day as he signed for an incredible final round of 63 and a six-stroke win on 14-under-par.
“Honestly, I thought I had no chance at the start of the round, this is a really tricky course and the leader had shot 64 yesterday which was like 59 today.
“So I just wanted to get a good round in before the World Tour Championship in Dubai next week, to have a good positive feeling going there, work on my swing a bit. Anything under par I would have been happy,” Noren said after his astonishing victory at the Gary Player Country Club.
None of the other contenders were able to check Noren’s incredible rise up the leaderboard, with the final three-ball of Wang, local favourite Louis Oosthuizen and Andy Sullivan all struggling to get going.
Pars were the order of the day for Oosthuizen, who started the day three behind Wang, and the South African then fell six behind after a double-bogey at the par-three seventh when he got stuck in a greenside bunker.
Wang was a pale shadow of the golfer who had shot an incredible 64 in decidedly unfriendly conditions in the third round, a bogey on the fourth and two dropped shots on the par-four eighth undoing his birdies on the second and fourth holes.
Even though he birdied the par-five ninth to draw level with Noren, it was clear all the momentum was with one of the most in-form players on the European Tour.
It was a hammer blow for Wang when Noren eagled the 10th and when he sank a superb flop-shot for birdie after short-siding himself on 11, the look of disbelief he received from Henrik Stenson’s caddy said it all.
Back-to-back bogeys on 15 and 16 thanks to wayward tee shots were the final blows to Wang’s chances as the 21-year-old South Korean had to settle for second on eight-under-par.
Sullivan birdied the second hole, but he then made three bogeys to undo the two more birdies he made, finishing with a level-par 72 and in a tie for third, seven strokes behind Noren, with Branden Grace (70), Spaniard Alejandro Canizares (68), Frenchman Victor Dubuisson (68) and Portugal’s Ricardo Gouveia (67).
Noren said his putter was his most outstanding club and it was hard to argue as his birdie putts on the first, seventh and eighth holes were all longer than 20 feet, as was his eagle putt on the 10th.
“I was a bit nervous at the start, I didn’t feel on top of my game but something happened and after seven holes I started to realise that I must believe in myself that I can win. My putter was very hot and I’ve never holed so many putts, I think on those first 11 holes, and I got a lot more excited,” Noren said.
Even though he registered his only bogey of the day on the par-five 14th, after a visit to the infamous love-grass, his victory – his fourth in his last 11 tournaments – was already secure by then.
The win keeps him in contention to win the Race to Dubai next weekend as he has vaulted into third place behind Stenson and Danny Willett, and 2017 will no doubt offer more titles for the newest member of the world top 10.
“I’ve been able to see what sort of game I could have and what I need to do to compete with the best. Today everything worked, but I still have a lot of work to do,” Noren said.
Stenson shot a two-under-par 70 on Sunday to finish in eighth place and will take a 300-point lead into the final event of the Race to Dubai next weekend.
Oosthuizen bogeyed on 16 and then double-dropped on the 17th to finish on five-under for the tournament and in ninth place.
Grace three-putted for a bogey on the last to slide back into the tie for third, a very costly lapse, but finished as the leading South African.
South Africa’s highest-ranked golfer did confirm that he is still determined to become the first local winner of the Nedbank Golf Challenge since Trevor Immelman in 2007.
“I was very disappointed with the three-putt on 18, but tied third is my best finish here yet, and hopefully next year I can come back and improve on that,” Grace said.