Liao Guiming won his first Omega China Tour title after beating the legendary Zhang Lianwei in a play-off for the RMB 800,000 Sofitel Golf Championship in Nanjing.
The first person he celebrated with was his wife, who had flown in for the final day without even telling her husband.
"I didn't even know she was coming. She didn't tell me and then I saw her as I walked off the green. I was so happy," said the 30-year-old, who won the RMB 150,000 winner's check after Zhang struggled to a double-bogey as the pair replayed the par-four 18th at the Nanjing Zhongshan International Golf Club.
Liao led the event from wire to wire, with rounds of 66, 69, 69 and 74 giving him a 10-under-par total of 278. Zhang closed with a 71, while 18-year-old Su Dong, who lost the lead after a triple-bogey on 16, also shot 71 after missing a four-foot birdie putt on 18 that would have put him in the play-off with his playing partners.
Large galleries enjoyed an enthralling final round contested by representatives of China's "three generations" of golf, each of whom held the lead for a period on the back nine.
However, it was the second-generation Liao who was left lifting the big trophy, a hard-earned reward after 10 top-10 finishes in his first 20 events on the Omega China Tour, including joint runner-up in last week's Shanghai Championship.
"I've wanted so badly to win in the five years since turning pro in 2003. Yuan Hao and Wu Kangchun, my two teammates in the 2002 Asian Games, have both won since turning pro, so I'm just happy to finally do the same," said Liao, only the second person to win the Sofitel title after Wu won the inaugural event last May.
"I've been working so hard and it has been a long time coming. The pressure has been building up all these years," added Liao, the fifth different champion in the first five events on this year's Omega China Tour.
Zhang, who turned pro in 1994, was gracious in defeat but carried on his exceptional record on the circuit, during which he has recorded six victories, four runner-ups, four thirds and a tied fourth.
"Liao is one of the most experienced players on the Tour and he deserved everything he got today," said Zhang, whose chance of winning the play-off evaporated when his tee-shot went into the trees. "We played three of the four rounds together this week and he has been perfect from tee to green."
Teenage amateur Su Dong was a bemused, forlorn figure after an eventful final few holes. The big-hitting 18-year-old led outright after birdieing the par-five 14th, but regretted using a driver on the 407-yard 16th when his tee-shot went into the water. After his approach also found the drink, he got up and down for a triple-bogey.
With Liao bogeying the hole, Zhang took the lead with a par, but the 42-year-old then dropped a shot after going into a greenside bunker on the par-three 17th and walked to the final hole level with Liao and one ahead of Su.
Both leaders parred the last after narrowly missing their birdie putts and it looked as though they'd be joined in the play-off by Su, who followed a booming drive with a stunning approach to four feet. However, he had to pull away from his first address due to the noise from a nearby camera, and the crowd's reaction matched his own despair after he missed with his rushed second attempt.
"I don't know what I'm feeling," said Su, who was consoled by hordes of fans, caddies and media eager for photos and autographs. "I'm sure I will face more important putts like I had today. After all, this is not the end of my golf career; it's just the beginning."
Su also finished third in last month's Kunming Championship, but his final-round showdown with Liao and Zhang, his mentor and good friend, has taken his self-belief to a new level.
"Finishing third here is very different from finishing third in Kunming. After this week, I feel much more confident about my game and feel like I belong here and can compete on this Tour," said Su, one of China's new generation of teenage stars with 18-year-old Hu Mu and 16-year-old Benny Ye Jianfeng. "If I had made the play-off, I feel confident I could have won it, but I have many more chances ahead of me."
(Xinhua News Agency May 26, 2008)