ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Christmas came late for Gary Stal. Martin Kaymer, playing the role of Santa Claus, gave the 21-year-old Frenchman the biggest present of his life.
Stal benefited from Kaymer’s unexpected meltdown in the final round of the $2.7 million Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship to win his first European Tour event. He returned a closing 7-under 65 for a 72-hole total of 19-under 269 to edge Rory McIlroy by one shot and beat Kaymer by two.
“It’s unbelievable to win,” said an emotional Stal, whose mother Christine died of cancer last May. “I saw the leaderboard on the fifth hole and I saw Martin on 23 under, (and) I say, ‘It’s not possible to win.’ When I saw the leaderboard on the 16th green I saw Martin at 17 under, so in my head I say, ‘It’s possible, you can do it.’
“Obviously, I feel for him. If I was in his shoes I would feel kind of in the dumps. As a competitor I’m very happy. It’s part of the game.”
Stal wasn’t even considered to be in the mix after 54 holes. No one was. As McIlroy said, everyone was “playing for second” considering Kaymer began the final round with a six-shot lead at a tournament he had won three times.
Kaymer looked to be cruising toward his fourth victory in Abu Dhabi until he suffered one of the biggest collapses in European Tour history.
The German raced to a 10-shot lead at 23 under with birdies at three of his first four holes on Sunday. But by the time he walked off the 13th hole, he was trailing Stal by a shot.
Kaymer made a double bogey at the par-4 ninth hole after his tee shot missed the fairway and ended up under a small bush. He then found another bush at the par-4 13th hole, only this time he made triple bogey after he chunked an easy pitch shot and failed to get up and down with his next chip. Those extra strokes made the difference.
“I do miss fairways, but usually you get away with it,” Kaymer said. “You don’t make double or triple bogey.”
Kaymer finished with a closing 3-over 75. It was his second worst score around the Abu Dhabi layout – he shot 77 in the opening round in 2012 – and nearly seven shots worse than his 68.54 average in 31 previous rounds.
“I’m surprised and a little shocked,” Kaymer said. “I don’t know how to put it into words. It was a very, very surprising day.”
McIlroy came close to forcing a playoff. His bunker shot for eagle at the par-5 18th hole ran just past the left edge of the hole. Nevertheless, he left Abu Dhabi pleased with his performance.
“It’s been a great week to see where my game is, to see what I need to work on going forward,” McIlroy said. “It’s been a good performance, 18 under par, some good scores. Overall, it’s good start to the season. My ballstriking has been great. I’m really comfortable with that after not touching a club for a month.”
The World No. 1 also was sympathetic to Kaymer’s plight.
“I know what it’s like to let a lead slip,” McIlroy said. “It’s tough. You make a couple of bad swings and guys make a couple of birdies around you and all of a sudden your put under a little bit of pressure and it’s hard to come back because you feel the momentum has gone against you and you’re trying to swing up stream or into the tide.”
It’s the second week in a row that a marquee name has taken a spectacular fall at the final hurdle. Last week, Charl Schwartzel was cruising toward victory in the South African Open Championship, but lost in a playoff to Andy Sullivan.
It just proves that we should always expect the unexpected in this incredibly unpredictable – and sometimes stupid – game.