CASARES, Spain – Famous Belgians: King Charlemagne, founder of the Holy Roman Empire; George Remi, aka Herge, creator of “Tintin”; Rubens and Magritte, painters; Eddie Merckx, champion cyclist; and Georges Lemaître, the astronomer who invented the Big Bang Theory.
It may be premature to add Nicolas Colsaerts to that list, but the 29-year-old Belgian has his own Big Bang Theory: whack it with a driver into the middle of next week. It was enough to grind down Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell in a 1-up win at the Volvo World Match Play and take home the $900,000 first prize.
The biggest victory of his career (he won for the first time in China last year) moves him just outside the top 30 in the World Ranking. It’s his seventh top 10 in 11 events this season, and he is now a contender to become the first Belgian to play in the Ryder Cup. He comes from fine sporting stock, too. His great grandfather represented Belgium in basketball and water polo at the 1920 Olympic Games.
“It’s always been my dream to play in the Ryder Cup,” Colsaerts said. “But there’s still a long way to go.”
Colsaerts and McDowell struggled with 30-mile-per-hour gusts, but oddly it was McDowell, raised on the windswept Irish links of Portrush, who had the tougher time coping with the elements.
At the par-five third, McDowell’s wayward drive came to rest two yards from a pond. To get his ball back into play, he had to thrash a wedge with the ball above his feet while balancing on rocks and pebbles as carp jumped up and plopped down in the pond in front of him. He may as well have gone fishing; Colsaerts was on the green in two and drained a 25-foot putt for eagle to take the lead.
But it was the Belgian who went fishing at the fourth. It’s a drivable par-four, but the carry to the green is across a pond. Colsaerts made the classic match play mistake. When McDowell saw his opponent’s ball make its splash landing, he took the safe option and aimed right to the fairway. Colsaerts’s approach zipped through the back of the green into fluffy rough. McDowell was on the green in two. Belgian chocolate would melt in a fridge in less time than it took Colsaerts to chip, putt and finally concede the hole.
McDowell took a penalty drop from a bush after another drive flew off the radar at the eighth. But he eventually managed to stand over a seven-footer for to halve the hole. He backed off as the gusting wind flapped at his pants like a zephyr ripping at the sails of a yacht. He re-marked his ball, steadied the ship and, of course, missed the putt. He smacked the head of his putter in frustration. Bogey. Colsaerts 1 up.
It got worse for McDowell with a wedge in his hand again at the ninth. He duffed it. But Colsaerts stepped up and missed the green with his wedge, too. Hole to McDowell. Match all square after nine holes, which took two hours and 17 minutes. Battling that gusting wind was a contributory factor.
Colsaerts took the lead for the fourth time at the 11th after McDowell again went on an arboreal meandering. The wind seemed to be rattling around McDowell’s head. He shanked his approach to the 13th and ended up in the scrub behind a giant scoreboard. He pulled his cap over his face, no doubt to conceal his anger and embarrassment. Three bogeys in a row from McDowell, and daylight between the finalists for the first time. Colsaerts was 2 up.
But McDowell is nothing if not a fighter. He curled in an eight-footer to get one back at the 14th. Colsaerts missed a four-footer to win the match at the 17th, but his long game finally got the better of McDowell to close out the match at the 18th.
Earlier in the day, McDowell kept his nerve while beating the last of the home contingent, Spaniard Rafael Cabrera-Bello. The Spaniard needed to birdie the 18th to take the Northern Irishman into a playoff. He bogeyed.
In the other semi-final, Paul Lawrie let slip his chance to join McDowell in the final by letting go of a four-hole lead to lose to Colsaerts. Lawrie won the first four holes, but he hung his head low when his putt to win at the first extra hole, the par-3 17th, missed by inches.
He knew his opponent held the advantage at the par-5 18th, and so it proved. Birdie for the Belgian; only a par and a taxi to the airport for the Scot. But Lawrie gained more vital Ryder Cup points in his quest to make his first appearance in the biennial tussle with the U.S. since he won the British Open at Carnoustie in 1999. The 43-year-old is desperate to play.
“One of the big disappointments of my career is I’ve only played once in it,” Lawrie said. “So I’m keen to get in this time, especially with Ollie (Jose Maria Olazabal) as captain.”
Part of Lawrie’s plan is the controversial decision to snub next month’s U.S. Open. But despite his fine form in Spain, Lawrie is sticking by his decision not to travel to the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He believes he has more chance to rack up Ryder Cup points on the European tour.
“I have no problem with the decision,” he said. “And, to be fair, I think the way it’s been explained, you can see what I’m on about. The way I’ve done my schedule is the best for me.”