AJMAN, UAE: The comeback was complete for Australian Daniel Gaunt when he won the Troon Series – Al Zorah Open following a thrilling three-way play-off on Wednesday.
The 40-year-old England-based Gaunt, who quit professional golf midway through 2017 and was playing only his second competitive event after starting again this year, shot a one-over par 73 in brutally windy conditions at the Nicklaus Design course in Ajman to finish on nine-under par 207 in the 54-hole tournament.
He was joined at that score by England’s Benjamin David, who shot his third successive 69, and South African MG Keyser (71).
In the ensuing play-off that lasted two holes, Gaunt birdied both to record his first win in an Official World Golf Ranking-recognized event since his Telenet Trophy victory on the European Challenge Tour in May 2013.
Keyser parred the first play-off hole (the par-5 fourth) to leave it to Gaunt and David. On the par-3 sixth hole, playing straight into headwind, the Australian smashed a four-iron to 20 feet and made his putt, while David had to be satisfied with tied second place alongside Keyser after a par.
Scotland’s Craig Ross (75), who was leading by two shots at the turn but lost steam after making a double bogey on the 12th hole, and England’s Seve Benson (71) were tied fourth at 209.
India’s Dubai-based Rayhan Thomas (73) finished as the Leading Amateur at four-under par 212, which was good for tied ninth place overall. England’s Curtis Knipes (72), the amateur winner at Journey To Jordan-1, the inaugural event of the 2019 season, was next best at two-under par.
Gaunt, a winner of two Challenge Tour events in his career, gave up professional golf after getting frustrated with his poor form and the resulting financial strain on his family. He joined the maintenance team at his home club, the Burhill Golf Club in Walton-on-Thames, and did not play any tournament throughout 2018.
“I just don’t have the words to explain what I am feeling right now. I have not played much the last 12-18 months and if you had said I’d win in my second proper event coming back, I would have snapped your hands off,” said Gaunt, who made two bogeys in his first three holes, but then fought back with birdies on the par-5 fourth and sixth holes. A bogey on the eighth was then followed by pars on his last 11 holes.
“It’s been a long couple of years. I have absolutely worked my backside off to get to this place. I am so happy, but I also want this to be the stepping stone to take me further.
“The conditions were tough. The wind was brutal and the pins were tucked. I did not have my best stuff, but I am proud of the way I battled. And then to make two birdies when I needed to make them in the play-off, that was amazing.”
Thomas finished with a birdie, but dropped shots on the par-3 15th and the 16th holes denied him a sub-par score and a place inside the top-five.
“The conditions were very tough, but my game was also mediocre,” said Thomas, who created history on the MENA Tour when he became the first amateur to win a title (2016 Dubai Creek Open) and is the second highest ranked Asian player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking at No16.
“I am happy to be the Leading Amateur, but I obviously wanted to win the tournament. I know I could have contended for the title this week. It would have been nice to start the season with a win in your third tournament of the year.”
The stunning Al Zorah Golf Club, managed by Troon Golf, was opened in December 2015. A world-class par-72 course, it is designed by the Nicklaus Design group and situated amidst beautiful one million square metres of mangroves and features a plethora of native sandy areas, an abundance of wildlife and 12 km of waterfront.
The MENA Tour by Arena is returning to the world schedule after a year of restructuring and will feature 10 tournaments in 2019. It will continue to provide Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) points, thus making it a perfect pathway for ambitious young professional to the bigger tours, and for the players from the region to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.