Shane Lowry showed he has the form and the confidence to return to the world's top 50 soon after he finished solo second behind Sergio Garcia in the 54-hole Andalucia Valderrama Masters.
The Clara man (31) got to within a shot of Garcia in the weather-delayed third and final round when he birdied his first three holes on Valderrama’s treacherous back nine.
His dash for the winning line was halted by a costly double bogey five at the 15th, where he was distracted on the tee and lost a ball right after hitting what he described as "the worst shot I’ve hit all year".
But he managed to birdie the 18th to card five-under-par 66, earning a cheque for €222,220 and enough points to secure his spot in the DP World Tour Championship, moving from 63rd to 43rd in the Race to Dubai with only the top 60 qualifying for season-ending event.
Just as importantly, he rose 17 spots up to 70th in the world and now has an opportunity to make the top 50 again by Christmas — with all that entails in terms of major starts for 2019 — after a season that’s been a true tale of two halves.
He was 92nd in the world following his missed cut in The Open, where he split with long time caddie Dermot Byrne, before finding form again with his brother Alan on the bag for a four-week US stint that saw him contend for the US PGA in St Louis.
While his share of 12th there did little justice to the quality of his play and he was spent at the Wyndham Championship and lost his PGA Tour card, he had clearly turned the corner.
With the experienced Brian “Bo” Martin taking over as caddie in Portugal (T6) he appears to have found a second wind at the end of the season for the second year running. And despite that costly double bogey that cost him a chance to win for the first time since the 2015 WGC Bridgestone Invitational, he was understandably pleased overall with a result that could prove key to turning what looked like being a difficult season into a good one.
If he can win for the first time in three years over the next few weeks, it might even go down as a great one.
"A 66 around here and being in contention is pretty good," said Lowry, who looked close to his best from tee to green and finished a confidence-boosting fifth for putts per green hit in regulation and first for putts per round thanks to his short game, which has been far from its very best in recent seasons..
”I’m just disappointed I didn’t put a bit of pressure on Sergio. I had it to within one at one stage, and then I made double, and he made birdie. That was it.
"But it’s my best week of the year, serious positives to take from it, and I’ve got a great four weeks coming up now to finish the season."
Four adrift of Garcia with ten holes of his delayed final round to complete, the Offaly man birdied the 10th, 11th and 12th to get within a shot of the former Masters champion,, whose Ryder Cup performance has clearly turned his year around.soon
But he then lipped out for birdies at the 13th and 14th after that crushing double bogey at the 15th, Garcia took advantage and birdied the 14th before going on to post a two-under 69 and claim the title for the third time running, winning by four shots on 12-under par.
Six of Lowry’s last seven top-10 finishes have come on the European Tour and he had no problem admitting that he’s at his best nearer to home.
"I always feel a lot more comfortable when I come back and play in Europe," confessed Lowry, who has the Turkish Airlines Open, the Nedbank Golf Challenge and DP World Tour Championship to try and make a move in the world rankings (and into the top 30 in the Race to Dubai who are exempt for The Open at Royal Portrush) before he partners Paul Dunne in the ISPS Handa Melbourne World Cup of Golf.
"I’ve found it somewhat hard to go over and play in America and spend my time over there, but it’s what I wanted to do, and I have no regrets.
“It’s nice to be back here for a while and nice to throw in a few good finishes as well to move up the Race to Dubai and the World Rankings.
“It was a long week but the golf course was great, it held up. It was in super condition considering the amount of rain we had. This is one of my favourite golf courses in the world, so when there’s a tournament here I’ll always be back.”
It was also a good week for Mount Juliet rookie Gavin Moynihan (24), who closed with a brilliant 66 to finish a European Tour career-best tied for eighth on three-under, winning € 44,933.
After winning his card at the Qualifying School last year, the Portrane man missed 12 cuts in a row earlier this season and while he must now go next month's Second Stage of the Q-School, he will tee it up with renewed confidence after a grinding performance on one of Europe's toughest tests.
Pádraig Harrington tied for 66th on six over after a 73 which proved costly as he fell to 87th in the Race to Dubai and failed to make the top 70 available players (the list went down to 86th ranked Jeunghun Wang) who make up the automatic qualifiers for next week’s Turkish Airlines Open, where Dunne and Graeme McDowell qualified with Lowry by right.
As of last night, Harrington was listed alongside Thomas Bjorn and Nicolas Colsaerts as an invitee, meaning any prize money he earns in Antalya, where he was fourth behind Justin Rose last year, will not count on the Race to Dubai.
As a result he would be unable to qualify on merit as one of the leading 64 who make up the field for the Nedbank Golf Challenge (where he also played on an invitation last year) and would therefore be unable to qualify for the DP World Tour Championship.
As for Garcia, who also won at Valderrama in 2011, his successful defence earned him €333,330 and a move to 25th in the Race to Dubai and 27th in the world.
When play resumed on Monday, he carded three birdies and a single bogey in his last 11 holes to finish the week on 12 under par and admitted that Lowry's double bogey at the 15th eased his path to his third win in his last three starts at Valderrama and his 15th on the European Tour.
”It’s so difficult, this golf course is so challenging,” said Garcia. “For me to be able to shoot three rounds under par with the positions we played all week, all the rain we had, and all the stop and going means a lot. I’m very proud of that.
“I knew the guys would attack, they would be going after me. This is the kind of golf course that if you’re a little bit off you can struggle but if your game is on it gives you a lot of birdie opportunities.
“Obviously Shane was playing well, he got close to me, then unfortunately he doubled 15 and then I dug up an extra gap with my birdie on 14 and opened it to four.”
Rory McIlroy will be the lone Irish player taking on newly crowned world No 1 Brooks Koepka in this week's $10 million WGC HSBC Champions in Shanghai as Seamus Power plays the Sanderson Farms Championship in Mississippi.
Power has finished tied 29th and tied 15th in his previous appearances at the Country Club of Jackson and will be keen to open his 2018-19 FedEx Cup account.
Andalucia Valderrama Masters hosted by the Sergio Garcia Foundation, Real Club Valderrama (Par 71)
201 S Garcia (Esp) 68 64 69,
205 Shane Lowry (Irl) 69 70 66,
207 M Korhonen (Fin) 69 71 67,
208 A Chesters (Eng) 66 70 72,
209 L Westwood (Eng) 71 68 70, G Fdez-Castaño (Esp) 70 68 71, M Kieffer (Ger) 72 71 66,
210 Gavin Moynihan (Irl) 73 71 66, J Norris (Aus) 69 71 70, M Nixon (Eng) 69 71 70,
211 G Bourdy (Fra) 67 73 71, M Warren (Sco) 69 69 73, O Fisher (Eng) 71 69 71, J Luiten (Ned) 73 71 67, R Ramsay (Sco) 69 74 68,
212 A Quiros (Esp) 68 70 74, R Rock (Eng) 71 73 68, A Cañizares (Esp) 71 72 69, R Gouveia (Por) 72 71 69, P Peterson (USA) 70 72 70, T Aiken (RSA) 74 72 66,
213 D Lipsky (USA) 73 70 70, J Scrivener (Aus) 68 73 72, O Farr (Wal) 68 72 73, A Johnston (Eng) 73 70 70, L Jensen (Den) 71 72 70, E Molinari (Ita) 70 73 70, M Kinhult (Swe) 71 72 70,
214 A Saddier (Fra) 71 71 72, M Fraser (Aus) 71 75 68, J Guerrier (Fra) 75 70 69, S Kjeldsen (Den) 75 70 69, C Shinkwin (Eng) 72 72 70, R McEvoy (Eng) 72 71 71, A Hansen (Den) 73 72 69, D Drysdale (Sco) 72 69 73, P Angles (Esp) 71 74 69, S Del Val (Esp) 72 74 68, C Bezuidenhout (RSA) 77 68 69, S Gallacher (Sco) 74 71 69, J Wang (Kor) 71 71 72,
215 R Bland (Eng) 70 73 72, P Waring (Eng) 72 72 71, R Evans (Eng) 72 69 74, L Canter (Eng) 71 72 72, S Brown (Eng) 70 72 73, A Dodt (Aus) 75 71 69, J Winther (Den) 74 72 69, D Horsey (Eng) 73 70 72, M Baldwin (Eng) 72 72 71, J Choi (Kor) 72 73 70,
216 M Lundberg (Swe) 71 69 76, B Dredge (Wal) 74 71 71, W Ormsby (Aus) 72 69 75, G Green (Mas) 76 70 70, R Jacquelin (Fra) 70 70 76,
217 N Elvira (Esp) 69 75 73,
218 C Sordet (Fra) 76 70 72, C Koepka (USA) 72 74 72, C Mivis (Bel) 72 72 74, C Syme (Sco) 73 72 73, M Southgate (Eng) 71 74 73, R Karlsson (Swe) 71 75 72, T Bjørn (Den) 73 71 74, T Jaidee (Tha) 75 71 72,
219 F Dreier (Den) 74 71 74, Pádraig Harrington (Irl) 72 74 73, S Lee (Kor) 75 70 74, S Hend (Aus) 73 73 73,
220 J Thomson (Eng) 74 72 74,
221 D Fichardt (RSA) 69 75 77, E De La Riva (Esp) 72 73 76,
222 G Stal (Fra) 73 73 76, N Bertasio (Ita) 70 73 79,
223 B Neil (Sco) 73 72 78, B Ritthammer (Ger) 71 75 77