Tour News

Debutante closes gate at NZ Open

(Photo: Photosport)
24-year-old American Robert Gates, playing in his very first Nationwide Tour event, has led throughout to win the Michael Hill New Zealand Open played this week near Queenstown in New Zealand's South Island.

Gates enjoyed a six shot at one stage in the middle of his round but a mixture of his own struggles and a strong closing nine holes by Australian Andrew Dodt closed the margin to just one.

Dodt appeared to blow his chance of victory with a double bogey at the par five 17th but found a way to keep the tournament alive and the pressure on Gates until the final putt. After the double bogey Dodt found himself two behind Gates as the pair headed to the 18th tee but when Gates hit just through the green and chipped to three feet the opportunity existed for one last twist in the tournament.

Dodt's approach with a pitching wedge finished 20 feet from the hole but when he holed that putt for birdie the margin was just one and Gates short putt took on a new dimension. He was equal to the task and completed a significant stepping stone so early in his professional career.

"The three foot putt - I just had to focus after Andrew holed his putt," said Gates. "I told myself that I those are the putts I practice a lot and it was just another one."

"Today I really played well. I hit nearly every shot exactly where I was looking today apart from the 16th. The most satisfying thing for me however is the knowledge that in this particular week I was the best golfer for the week. I played against some of the best golfers in the world and came through."

He was quick to point out the 8 footer he made for par at the 17th as the best putt he hit all week and was full of praise for his nearest pursuer all week Andrew Dodt. "Andrew hit some of the best shots I have seen over the closing nine holes including a couple of great 2 irons. The one he hit to the 13th we just looked in awe at it. I would have been disappointed to have lost but would have been excited for him."

The winner's cheque of US$108,000 naturally takes Gates to the top of the Nationwide and Australasian Tour money lists in 2010 in this opening event of the season on the Nationwide Tour and the third event of the 2010 Australasian Tour. In order for Gates to enjoy status on the Australasian PGA Tour however he will need to take up membership within the next two weeks.

"I haven't thought about that but my best option of getting to the PGA Tour is through the Nationwide Tour and that is where my focus will be this year."

Gates established a six shot break through 8 holes of his final round today in the increasingly strong wind but as they left the 13th green an hour later the difference was just two. Consecutive birdies at the 12th and 13th by Dodt and dropped shots by Gates at the 9th and 11th saw the gap close quickly and all of a sudden instead of a runaway victory the large crowd were witnessing a genuine contest.

The 14th and 15th were parred by both golfers and, with the difference just two, the controversial par three 16th appeared as if it might play a crucial role. It did. Gates found the creek to the right of the green and took double bogey and the pair was tied.

The par five 17th would also play its part in the finish. Both players found the right hand waste bunker from the tee and although Gates saved par Dodt would stumble when he was forced to chip sideways and was still 226 metres from the flag as he stood over this third. "I pulled a 4 four iron and then had a downhill lie in the bunker and got caught up in the fringe," said Dodt later.

"I'm disappointed in losing but happy for Robert," added Dodt. "I met him for the first time yesterday but he is a good guy and I am pleased for him. I never gave up today and even when I was six behind I just wanted to claw it back one shot at a time."

When asked if this good week and perhaps another next week might change his plans for the US this year he would say, "I want to get to the US as soon as possible but we shall see what happens. I missed out at the 2nd Stage of Q School last year which was disappointing but was keen to play these two events well and see what happened."

Dodt will play next week's Moonah Classic and even if he was not to win there he still enjoys full status on the Asian Tour in 2010.

 The much vaunted and emerging American, Jamie Lovemark, who only arrived in Queenstown on Wednesday after the delayed finish to last week's Bob Hope Classic, made the most significant move on the final day with a round of 68 to finish two shots behind the winner in third place after starting the day ten shots behind. 

Only 22 years of age, Lovemark turned professional in mid 2009 but his outstanding amateur career included a runner-up finish at the 2007 Rochester Area Charities Classic on the Nationwide Tour. Amongst the five events he played on the PGA Tour in 2009 finished runner up after a playoff to Troy Matteson at the Frys.com event in Las Vegas. Clearly he is a player of some promise and his near miss this week is further evidence of such.

Lovemark is still a hot item on the invitation list for PGA Tour events and he is due to line-up at the AT&T in two weeks time at Pebble Beach. He is however determined to focus his attention on the Nationwide Tour in order that he earns his way to the PGA Tour in 2011. "My main focus is definitely the Nationwide Tour but in weeks off I will play the PGA Tour where and when I get starts."

Fourth place went to Australian Michael Curtain who struggled for much of the day before an eagle at the 17th saw him eventually finish fourth ahead of Mark Hensby whose weekend rounds off 66 and 71 saw him make a big leap over the final 36 holes.

On a windy and firm golf course expected to suit the Australasian contingent on day four, it would be three Americans who recorded the best rounds of the day. Lovemark, Casey Wittenberg and Jim Carter each recorded the best rounds of the day (68).

The future of the New Zealand Open now faces several months of uncertainty as the multitude of considerations involved in its return to the Hills Golf Club are placed under the microscope. Whether it stays or leaves this marvellous venue there is little doubt its three years here have played a key role in breathing life into what was a very much ailing event.

Bruce Young
About The Author : Bruce Young

A multi-award winning golf journalist, Bruce's extensive knowledge of and background in the game of golf comes from several years caddying the tournament circuits of the world, marketing a successful golf course design company and as one of Australia's leading golf journalists and commentators.

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