SAADIYAT // Callum Nicol held his nerve in a sudden death play-off to clinch the UAE PGA Championship yesterday. Nicol, the Els Club professional, made a birdie at the first hole of a shoot-out with Stephen Deane to take the title at the Saadiyat Beach Club
"It was fantastic to play so well at such a wonderful venue," said Nicol. Thirty-six holes over two testing days on the daunting terrain at Saadiyat could not separate the two rivals who posted aggregates of 149, five over par for their two rounds over the lengthy 7,784-yard course. Nicol, who began the second day three strokes off the pace after a disappointing opening score of 78, produced the best round of the tournament, a one-under-par 71, to draw level with the more consistent Deane, of Emirates Golf Club, who followed his opening 75 with a 74.
The victory lifted Nicol into second place in the UAE order of merit behind the runaway winner Simon Payne, of Tower Links. Nicol, who did not arrive at his Dubai Sports City base until midway through the season, was just as pleased with his runners-up spot in the merit table as he was with his victory in his association's flagship event. "I knew it would be almost impossible to catch Simon in the order of merit so I set myself a target of a top three position and I'm delighted to have achieved that," he added.
There was an enormous incentive for Nicol to finish in the top three with Payne and Malcolm Young, of Arabian Ranches, because the leading trio will represent the UAE in the annual PGA of Europe team championship at Murcia, Spain, at the end of November. "That is something really special to look forward to," added Nicol, a Scot about a first taste of representative honours. "It should be a fantastic trip."
It is an honour that comes fairly routinely to Payne, who is acknowledged as the best club professional in the Emirates. The steady Australian, who prides himself on his consistently high finishes, was guaranteed a third order or merit title before he stuck a ball at Saadiyat. He still went all out for more glory over the two days, though, and refused to let a disappointing first-round score of 78 deflect him from his quest for another top-three finish which he almost achieved by posting a challenging score of 74 which left him a stroke behind third-placed Fraser McLaughlin, of Palm Sports Resort.
"It was tough out there," he reflected. "The wind made it hard to get the ball close enough to the holes to set up birdie chances and when you did get close the greens were really tricky. It was hard to make the putts - but that's what you have to expect on a course as good as this one." Payne is relishing the prospect of his fourth appearance in the UAE team for the Spanish confrontation with his counterparts from the best clubs in Europe.
"We have finished just outside the top 10 on the last two occasions I played," he said. "The top 10 teams earn prize money, so we are looking to collect some of that this year. I think with Callum and Malcolm qualifying we have an outstanding chance to do that in November. I'll be aiming for top eight. "The golf course there really suits my game. I reckon I'm about 18 under par for the last half dozen rounds I've played there."
Payne will receive his prestigious order of merit trophy at the PGA's end-of-season dinner at Al Badia Golf Cub next Thursday, when Nicol will also collect his treasured award. Jeff O'Brien, the chairman of the PGA, congratulated all of his members at Saadiyat yesterday and enthused that the Association is flourishing with a membership of over 100 as more and more new clubs have provided working opportunities in the region for ambitious young professionals. @Email:email@example.com