Golf: Martin benefits from Couples' repeat collapse

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The Independent Online
If there is going to be a Spaniard playing in the Ryder Cup at Valderrama this September it is likely to be Miguel Martin. As Fred Couples found out at The Vines, he could be a handy acquisition to the European team.

Martin's victory in the Heineken Classic, and his pounds 107,546 first prize, puts him second on the Cup points list behind Colin Montgomerie. The week the qualifying process started Martin lost a play-off to the Australian Robert Allenby in the British Masters.

He has been close to winning on several occasions during a career dating back to 1983. His only previous title came at the French Open at Paris National in 1992. Then Nick Faldo, inexplicably, closed bogey, double bogey. Martin finished par, birdie to pinch it.

Yesterday Couples thought he had clinched the win when he led by two after curling in a 20-footer on the 16th for his fifth birdie in seven holes. From the middle of the next fairway, Couples let his nine-iron leak into the right-hand bunker. For those watching on television, like Martin's wife, Mercedes, on German satellite TV at home in Madrid, it looked like a replay of Couples' nine-iron shot at The Belfry against Christy O'Connor Jnr in 1989.

Couples failed to get up and down and then drove into a bunker at the last. The American almost found the water with his lay-up shot and finally missed a 15-foot birdie putt. "I knew I had to make that to at least get into a play-off," said Couples, whose 67 put him in the clubhouse at 14 under.

That was the mark at which Martin started the day with a three-shot lead over Frank Nobilo. At the second, he three-putted for his first bogey of the tournament though he recovered the dropped shot at the next. By the turn others were well in contention, including the 42-year-old newcomer to the European tour, Japan's Katsuyoshi Tomori. "I knew I had to start playing better," Martin said.

Tomori faltered when he left his second shot in a fairway bunker at the 12th. Martin did exactly the same to fall two behind Couples. The 34-year- old responded in a way that would have made countryman and Ryder Cup captain Seve Ballesteros proud. He rolled in a 20-footer at the 14th and made vital putts of six, three and eight feet at the last three holes.

Martin came to the par-five 18th needing a birdie to win and hit his four-wood into the bank bunker. "I knew I could get up and down," Martin, who shot 71, said. "I knew it was an easy shot from the practice round." He still had to hole the putt back but calmly did so.

"I have a lot of confidence with my putter," he said. "I got a new driver last year and have been playing well since last June. If I keep playing the same way, I am 100 per cent sure I can make the Ryder Cup team.

"It would be very important for my career and for Spain to have a Spanish player on the team. I used to think golf was a game for the big guys, but small guys can win sometimes."

"I am pretty pissed off but Miguel hung in there all day and birdied the 18th and I didn't," Couples said. "When you get a lead you should bury it. I started okay, the middle was fantastic but the finish was mediocre. It was a stupid shot to hit a nine-iron 20 yards right of the flag from the middle of the fairway."

The defending champion, Ian Woosnam, who eagled the last for a 66, and Montgomerie, with 67, finally holed some putts while Ernie Els closed with a 65 as opposed to John Daly's 76 for 14 over par.

Final scores, Digest, page 19