Golf: Sjoland seals first victory on European Tour

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The Independent Online
By Andy Farrell In Agrate Conturbia

JOSE MARIA OLAZABAL knew exactly how well he had to play to win the Italian Open. The Spaniard, whose avowed dislike of second place was reiterated after his runner-up finish in Barcelona a week ago, had played with Patrik Sjoland for the first two rounds.

"Sensational" and "tremendous" were the words Olazabal had used to describe Sjoland's play over the first 36 holes at Castelconturbia when the 26- year-old Swede followed an opening 64 with a second-round 65. The latter was only completed yesterday morning due to the week's earlier rain and if the sun emerging on the final day was contrary to the predicted weather forecast, Sjoland hanging on to his advantage was not unexpected.

Sjoland hardly missed a fairway or a green over the three rounds of a tournament reduced to 54 holes. And he only dropped one stroke in that time, at the par-three 15th on Friday. Yesterday he made his fourth two of the day at the same hole to clinch his first win on the European Tour. His closing 66 gave him a total of 21 under par and a three stroke victory.

"I knew he would be tough to beat," said Olazabal. "I told Sergio, my manager, that if he kept playing the same way he would win very soon. It was quicker than I thought."

Olazabal, who started four behind the Swede, was the winner's nearest challenger for most of the day after birdieing the first three holes. But while the Spaniard had been caught by Thomas Bjorn in the Spanish Open last week, this time the margin was never narrowed to more than two strokes.

A second successive 65 left Olazabal at 18 under and tied for second with another Swede, Joakim Haeggman, who came home in 29 for a final round 63. The shared prize-money of pounds 42,655 leaves Olazabal pounds 12,042 short of Ernie Els at the top of the European money list.

Sjoland, who now lives in Marbella, with his girlfriend Ulrika, who also caddies for him, was involved in a serious car crash six years ago driving his sister to an indoor golf driving range on icy roads. The car flipped over and Sjoland went out of the sun roof. "Even though it was not open at the time," he said. Sjoland spent the next month in hospital and had his spleen removed.

His attempts to win on the European tour, for which he qualified for in 1995 after winning on the Challenge Tour, have also been painful on occasions. Two years ago, he bogeyed the final hole at Bergamo to lose this same title to Jim Payne.

Earlier in the same year he faced a birdie putt on the final green which could have given him victory in the Madeira Island Open but the final hole pin placement was diabolically set virtually on top of a ridge in the green. While other players three and four-putted to lose the tournament, Sjoland was the only one to five-putt.

But the number of times he has appeared in the top 10 in recent times suggested he was near to a maiden victory. Already this season he finished third in the South African PGA Championship and second in the Qatar Masters to Andrew Coltart.

"After finishing second two years ago this means an awful lot," Sjoland said.

"This week has been the best iron play of my whole career but I knew I had to make some birdies because Olazabal got off to a good start too. It was very special to have Ulrika caddying for me. It means so much to have her around each week."