Donaldson thrills record crowds with victory at last

 

Royal Portrush

A week that meant so much to Northern Ireland turned out to mean even more for Welshman Jamie Donaldson last night. In his 255th European Tour event and after a career afflicted by a genetic spine problem, the 36-year-old finally tasted victory in the Irish Open – and did it by four shots, with five birdies in his last seven holes.

This was the first time since 1953 that the tournament had been played north of the border and what a success it was, with record crowds for a regular Tour event – over 112,000 for the four days. Every one of them will hope it leads to the return of the Open Championship to the province after even longer – Max Faulkner won here 61 years ago – and Donaldson will join them in that wish.

The former amateur star, who partnered Luke Donald and Paul Casey in the World Team Championship in 2000, has suffered from Pars disease, but careful management of it has finally enabled him to fulfil his dream.His brilliant closing 66 was only one off the lowest round of the week and a 25-foot putt on the last enabled him to reach 18-under par.

"I'm buzzing," Donaldson said. "And I'm so happy to have won on this course – I don't think we have played a better one on the European Tour."

Reminded of his long wait to break through – it has contained 32 top-10 finishes – Donaldson added: "It's just been a case of keeping going. I knew that what I was doing was right. It feels a bit surreal, to be honest. I don't think it will sink in till later."

Donaldson's week began with him shooting 62 at Sunningdale to qualify for The Open at Royal Lytham and St Anne's and also contained his first hole-in-one on the circuit.

Joint second at Royal Portrush were England's Anthony Wall, Spaniard Rafa Cabrera-Bello and Paraguay's Fabrizio Zanotti. The local "Big Three" of Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke finished 10th, 16th and 39th respectively.

McIlroy, who came in on the back of four missed cuts in his last five starts, was delighted with his ball-striking, but will hope to putt much better when he next plays at Royal Lytham.

"Tee to green it was a big improvement," said the world No 2 after his 67 yesterday. "That's what I've been working on and maybe neglecting my short game. I've just got to get that sharp now and prepare for The Open, and I'd love to see that come here."

Clarke echoed that and was able to draw positives from the fact that he had finally made a halfway cut this season. "It's been an absolutely brilliant week," said the reigning Open champion.

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