David Higgins gave himself a fighting chance of clinging on to the European Tour card it cost him blood and tears to win back at last year’s Q-School when he produced a sensational 72nd hole birdie in Turin to clinch the best finish and the biggest cheque of his 17-year tour career.
The popular 40-year old Waterville man, who was ranked a tenuous 163rd in the Race to Dubai at the start of the week, punched the air repeatedly after he made birdie despite finding a fairway bunker, holing a 15 footer up a slope for a gutsy four under par 68 to set the joint cloubhouse target with playing partner Steve Webster in the 70° Open d’Italia Lindt.
In the end, Frenchman Julien Quesne birdied three of his last four holes to win his second European Tour title by a stroke from Higgins and Webster. But the Kerryman’s share of second place could yet help him save his card as he earned a career best cheque for €130,280 to leap 52 places to 111th in the Race to Dubai standings - €3,940 short of the top 110 who will keep their cards at the end of the season.
Before Quesne denied him a playoff chance, Higgins said of his career and his ability: “I can do it. I just have to do it more often I guess. It gets me into Portugal now so I get one more go at it. I am at an age now where you have to take things in your stride. We’ll celebrate anyway. If I get another go at it, I will give it everything I’ve got.
“I said at the start of the week that I had good practice rounds here. I am proud of myself for taking that into the competition itself. I haven’t had a finish like this in 17 years or something, so I am delighted.”
Higgins didn’t get another bit of the cherry in Turin but he still has at least two more chances to keep his card - and win.
The top 110 at the end of the season will retain full playing privileges for 2104 and while Higgins is not ranked high enough to get into this week’s $5m Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, he is now certain to play the €2m Portgual Masters in two weeks’ time.
That will give him a chance to earn enough cash to move comfortably into the top 110 before the cards are decided after the final regular season event, the Perth International in Australia, the following week. If not he may have to make a 14th visit to the dreaded Q-School
His cheque for €130,280 was his biggest in 205 European Tour starts since he turned professional in 1996. It was also his best finish, overtaking his share of third with the likes of Pádraig Harrington in that season’s BMW International Open in Munich, when it was reduced to just 36 holes.
“It’s where I feel I belong,” Higgins said when he won his card at PGA Catalunya Resort last year. “Put me on the right course in the right conditions and I feel I can win tournaments. I’m not just saying that.
“I won on the Challenge Tour but that was a long time ago. I am a better player now. Stronger mentally. Put me on the right course and I can do really well.”
Higgins had a good feeling about Golf Club Torino they minute he set eyes on it in practice and knew he had a chance on a course that played a lot shorter than its 7,208 yards.
Requiring straight hitting, he played to his strengths and finished the week ranked 21st for driving accuracy and greens hit in regulation. More importantly for a player who is 122nd for putts per green in regulation this season, he was second in Turin. Had he been a little more clinical from greenside sand (40 percent) he might have won the tournament.
Ironically, he got up and down from sand at the last, holing a clutch 15 footer up a slope following a sensational fairway bunker shot under the severest of pressure. His fist pump said it all.
At the time, it might have meant a first European Tour playoff for the reigning Irish PGA champion but while he was denied by Quesne, he was still determined to celebrate.
“I was very lucky,” Higgins said of his birdie at the last. “I hit an awful tee shot, got slightly distracted by a little bit of noise behind me but made a bad swing too.
“I walked up and saw where it finished and thought, ‘Wow, you’ve been lucky. I got a good lie. But you still have to play the shot and I did and got the putt so I was delighted.
“How many chances am I going to get of maybe tying for the lead here so I said, you have to give it a good chance a be positive with it. It was uphill and went right in the middle, so I was delighted.”
Four adrift of leader Marcus Fraser entering the final round, Higgins birdied the first but bogeyed the fifth to find himself still four behind before going for broke
He birdied the seventh, eighth and ninth to turn in 33 to get within a shot of the leaders and briefly led when he birdied the 14th.
A bogey at the 16th for the third time in four days looked to have scuppered Higgins’ chances but he almost chipped in for birdie at the 17th after narrowly overshooting the green following a brave approach and then made that birdie at the last to ask the question of Fraser and the later starters.
Quesne, 33, picked up shots at the tenth, 11th and 15th before chipping in from short of the 17th green and holing from six feet for another birdie on the last to complete a closing 67.
That set the clubhouse target on 12 under par just moments before overnight leader Fraser, who was also 12 under, three-putted the 15th and dropped another shot on the par three 16th after missing the green from the tee.
Fraser eventually signed for a 74 to finish joint eighth on nine under, leaving Higgins and England’s Webster to share second on 11 under.
Confessing that he watched leaderboards all afternoon, Higgins said: “Every time I had a chance I had a look, just to make sure I was doing okay.
“I like to look at the leaderboard because on the likes of 17, I would never have gone for that flag but I knew I was close and I hit a great shot - I must say, one of the best shots I have ever hit - and it ran over the back and I almost chipped it in. So I look at leaderboards, yes, it helps me decide how to play the shot.”
As for the rest of the Irish, Simon Thornton slipped from fifth to tied 16th after a disappointing 74 saw him finish five behind the winner.
Damien McGrane was joint 59th on level par but is now 74th in the Race to Dubai.
While Higgins is close to salvation, Peter Lawrie’s sixth missed cut from his last seven starts saw him slip to 109th in the money list and into the relegation zone heading to St Andrews, Kingsbarns and Carnoustie this week.
Quesne, whose previous win came in the Open de Andalucía last year, said: “I am very proud of this back nine. My attitude was very good this week and I think this is the key. To enjoy a second win on The European Tour is like a dream for me.
“After my double bogey [six on the second] I just kept calm. I was thinking the winner would be 15 under and I was only five under. I thought ‘just keep working and we will see what happens’.
“I am surprised to be here. The flags were very difficult all week so it was very difficult to make birdies and easy to make some bogeys.”
The victory lifts Quesne to 41st on The Race to Dubai with the top 60 qualifying for the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.
Complete Round Four Scores:
276 J Quesne (Fra) 70 68 71 67,
277 S Webster (Eng) 67 69 73 68, D Higgins (Irl) 67 69 73 68,
278 N Colsaerts (Bel) 65 71 70 72, E Grillo (Arg) 70 72 68 68, F Aguilar (Chi) 69 66 72 71, F Andersson Hed (Swe) 73 67 71 67,
279 A Quiros (Esp) 71 67 73 68, S Benson (Eng) 68 70 72 69, M Fraser (Aus) 66 71 68 74, R Wattel (Fra) 71 72 66 70, R Derksen (Ned) 71 69 71 68, H Otto (RSA) 71 67 70 71,
280 E Kofstad (Nor) 70 69 73 68, M Kieffer (Ger) 65 72 72 71,
281 F Zanotti (Par) 71 70 69 71, S Thornton (Irl) 68 67 72 74, D Horsey (Eng) 72 70 73 66, F Molinari (Ita) 68 67 71 75, M Foster (Eng) 74 65 71 71, J Van Zyl (RSA) 70 69 71 71, M Madsen (Den) 72 71 70 68,
282 M Tullo (Chi) 70 70 74 68, D Drysdale (Sco) 69 72 71 70, C Doak (Sco) 74 67 69 72, S Hend (Aus) 72 71 66 73, B Wiesberger (Aut) 69 72 68 73, S Jamieson (Sco) 72 69 70 71, M Baldwin (Eng) 71 68 72 71, J Lagergren (Swe) 72 67 67 76, J Campillo (Esp) 68 73 70 71,
283 R Gonzalez (Arg) 65 73 70 75, M Carlsson (Swe) 72 71 68 72, S Wakefield (Eng) 70 73 68 72, M Korhonen (Fin) 70 70 73 70, O Floren (Swe) 71 72 71 69, R Allenby (Aus) 71 72 70 70,
284 G Fdez-Castaño (Esp) 71 70 73 70, T Aiken (RSA) 69 71 74 70, A Cañizares (Esp) 71 67 72 74, R Paratore (am) (Ita) 72 66 71 75,
285 M Manassero (Ita) 70 70 69 76, G Bourdy (Fra) 71 72 73 69, M Nixon (Eng) 70 69 74 72, A Levy (Fra) 70 72 72 71, G Orr (Sco) 73 68 72 72,
286 J Ruth (Eng) 69 72 73 72, J Kingston (RSA) 68 71 75 72, J Edfors (Swe) 69 70 71 76, B Åkesson (Swe) 72 69 75 70, R Finch (Eng) 68 74 69 75, S Dyson (Eng) 69 74 72 71,
287 D Howell (Eng) 71 72 72 72, J Hansen (Den) 68 74 70 75, A Tadini (Ita) 72 71 71 73, S Khan (Eng) 73 70 71 73, K Broberg (Swe) 70 73 70 74, G Mulroy (RSA) 71 72 72 72,
288 J Lucquin (Fra) 71 72 74 71, L Slattery (Eng) 70 73 71 74, T Lewis (Eng) 70 72 75 71, G Boyd (Eng) 74 69 74 71, D McGrane (Irl) 71 69 76 72, A Hartø (Den) 69 74 71 74, R Ramsay (Sco) 75 68 70 75,
289 R Goosen (RSA) 70 72 74 73, P Whiteford (Sco) 73 68 74 74, J Walters (RSA) 70 73 71 75, M Grönberg (Swe) 71 70 73 75,
290 J Olazábal (Esp) 71 68 74 77,
291 R McEvoy (Eng) 73 70 73 75,
292 E Goya (Arg) 69 72 80 71,
293 G Storm (Eng) 70 71 73 79,
294 E Lipparelli (am) (Ita) 69 73 78 74,
299 P Erofejeff (Fin) 74 69 77 79