Padraig Harrington had to eat his words as Jamie Donaldson finished in glorious style to prove it is not so tough to win the Irish Open from the front.
Harrington had warned earlier in the tournament that it was easy to get defensive when you were there to be shot at.
But third round leader Donaldson, one of the European Tour’s perennial nearly men cruised to a four shot victory at Royal Portrush, capturing his maiden title at the 255th attempt.
Donaldson, 36, shot a sparkling final round 66 to pull away from a trio that included playing partner Anthony Wall, who was left to curse an horrific triple bogey eight at the second hole.
Wall carved his tee shot so far to the right that it flew out of bounds and almost landed in the caravan park where he has been staying with fellow Englishman Andrew Marshall.
Welshman Donaldson birdied that hole, and the next two to give himself a lead he never looked like surrendering.
Harrington’s expected final round charge failed to materialise after he set out just two shots off the lead.
He shot a two under par 70 for a share of seventh place on 12 under – but was one of only two men in the top 15 who failed to post a score in the sixties.
And he knows he failed to build on a terrific start. He was ten under par at halfway, and rounds of 72-70 at the weekend were never going to be good enough to get the job done.
But that was provided the one slightly sour note at a wonderful championship, which attracted a European Tour record attendance of 112,280 over the four days – more than 130,000 if you add in the practice day crowds.
The figure topped 30,000 for the second day running, and with no traffic problems on or off the course, that should surely convince the R&A observers Royal Portrush deserves another Open Championship.
Harrington and Northern Ireland’s trio of Major winners – Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell – have left no-one in any doubt that they feel the Claret Jug should be fought for up here.
And Michael Hoey joined the clamour after a closing 70 took him to seven under par.
He said: “Logistically they have done an unbelievable job, handling 1300,000 people so well. That’s a big part pof having the Open Championship.
“The golf course, the atmosphere, everything about this event has been awesome. It’s a big step in the right direction.”
McIlroy showed he is close to recapturing his best form after four missed cuts in his previous five starts.
A closing 67 took him to 11 under, and eh said: “It’s been incredible, as home a tournament as I’m ever going to play in.
“The crowds have come out to support the tournament, to support the players, and it’s been great to be part of it.
“It’s great to be able to think I did something to help bring this tournament here, and I think it’s been a huge success.”
McDowell went one better with a final round 66, which hoisted him to ten under overall.
He commented: “I can’t see any reason why we won’t be alternating this tournament north and south of the border year by year.
“I’ve come up a long way short of where I wanted to be, but Id didn’t putt too well early in the week and I played 14 holes in the worst weather we had all week on Saturday.
“Those two things left me kind of flogging a dead horse, but the event itself has been an incredible success.”
Clarke also had plenty to smile about, after over-seeing many of the arrangement for this tournament and making his first cut since last August.
He chipped in: “It’s been absolutely brilliant. Obviously I would have liked to have score a bit better, but the event has been enjoyed not just by the spectators , but by everyone involved.
“It’s been one of those weeks where I have hit too many sloppy shots and paid the penalty. But overall, I’m pleased with where my game is at.
But the biggest smile belonged to Donaldson.
He beamed: “This win means the world to me, especially after going close a few times in the past.
“I’ve taken the near-misses on the chin, because I had to accept I wasn’t goo enough on the day to hold the winner’s trophy. So it was great to do it in the manner today.”
Donaldson’s cheque for £267,00 was easily the biggest of his ten year European Tour career – although two runner-up finishes, three third places and a host of top tens helped him bank almost £4million.
It was also handsome compensation for missing out on a £90,000 BMW for his first round hole in one.
Jamie Morrison had already recorded an ace to claim the motor, and Donaldson had to settle for a bottle of whiskey and a ride-on replica for baby son Max.
There were no signs of stage-fright from Donaldson, despite his history of close calls.
He responded to his only bogeys – at the 11th and 16th holes – with birdies, and earned a huge cheer by sinking a twenty footer at the last for yet another birdie.
It was a fitting way to end a fantastic tournament.