Niall Kearney clinched the first Top 10 finish of his Challenge Tour career with a share of ninth in the D+D Real Slovakia Challenge.
The 27-year old former Walker Cup player, who picked up just over €3,000 in only his third Challenge Tour start of the year to move to 130th in the Road to Oman rankings, closed with a two under 70 to finish on 10 under par in his 55th event on the second tier circuit since 2010.
The reigning Irish Professional champion finished seven shots behind Spain’s Borja Virto Astudillo, who earned his maiden Challenge Tour title in truly dramatic fashion by chipping in for birdie on the 72nd hole for a 66 and a one-shot win over playing partner Ricardo Gouveia of Portugal.
“I normally stay pretty calm on the golf course, but I did the biggest fist-pump of my life when that chip went in on the last," said Virto, who had to wait to see if Denmark’s Jeff Winther could eagle the last to force a playoff .
"It was only just off the green but it had to go up and over a big slope and then down the other side, so it definitely wasn’t easy.
"To win your first title is always very special, but to shoot 66 and chip in on the last hole – it doesn’t get much better than that.”
The €26,400 cheque moved Virto Astudillo, who came through the Qualifying School last year, up to 12th place in the Road to Oman Rankings, and whilst he is likely to concentrate predominantly on The European Tour for the remainder of the season, the victory has restored some self-belief.
He said: “I don’t know why, but I just feel more comfortable on the Challenge Tour. It shouldn’t matter what Tour you’re playing on, because you’re only playing the golf course and not the rest of the field. But hopefully this win gives me confidence to take onto the main Tour, because I believe my game is good enough to compete out there.
“I played very well today, just hit two bad shots which cost me bogeys on the eighth and 17th. I actually made a good bogey on the eighth, because I hit my second into the water but managed to get up down from 80 metres. Then on the 17th I hit my approach shot right and didn’t manage to save par. So it was a really bad time to make bogey but I managed to stay calm, and then to finish like I did was obviously a dream.”
Tied for sixth overnight, Kearney slipped down the leaderboard in the end but it was still a good week as he birdied the second and then made three in a row from the fourth to get to 12 under par.
A double bogey five at the short eighth and a bogey at the 13th proved costly but he made a birdie five at the par-six 15th and parred his way in to share ninth spot.
Derry’s Michael McGeady was tied 14th, a shot further back on nine under following a four-birdie 69 and is now 125th in the Road to Oman rankings after six events.
Rosapenna’s Ruaidhri McGee leads the Irish posse in 10th spot with €41,184 from 10 starts with Chris Selfridge 53rd with €12,707 from his first five tournaments as a professional.
Gareth Shaw is 77th with €9,276 from seven events.
Final Round Scores
271 B Virto Astudillo (Esp) 69 67 69 66,
272 R Gouveia (Por) 69 66 69 68,
273 J Winther (Den) 66 71 66 70,
275 J Doherty (Sco) 65 71 68 71, S Henry (Sco) 73 70 66 66, J McLeary (Sco) 68 70 68 69,
276 S Wakefield (Eng) 68 74 68 66,
277 A Björk (Swe) 70 68 70 69,
278 L Claverie (Esp) 71 65 72 70, J Robinson (Eng) 73 68 69 68, J Hansen (Den) 70 70 69 69, T Sluiter (Ned) 69 69 73 67, N Kearney (Irl) 68 71 69 70,
279 C Arendell (USA) 74 68 71 66, D Huizing (Ned) 71 70 68 70, M McGeady (Irl) 70 68 72 69.