Sweden’s Alex Noren gave himself the perfect early birthday present by holding his nerve to claim a fifth European Tour title in the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open.
Noren, who turns 34 tomorrow, carded a closing 70 at Castle Stuart to finish 14 under par and a shot ahead of England’s Tyrrell Hatton, who birdied the last to complete a 69 and secure second place.
Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts, Italy’s Matteo Manassero and New Zealand’s Danny Lee shared third on 12 under, with Scotland’s Richie Ramsay and England’s Andy Sullivan a shot further back.
Hatton, Colsaerts, Manassero and Ramsay also secured the four qualifying places on offer in this week’s Open Championship for players not otherwise exempt who finished inside the top 12.
Noren, who won the Nordea Masters in his native Sweden in 2011 and 2015, said: “This is by far the biggest win. The amount of players that are here, and on a course like this in Scotland, it’s only what I dreamt of growing up.
“It feels really good. I’ve had trouble with the driver a little bit and the guys at Callaway changed it this week. I got a driver that doesn’t go too much right and with some more fairway hits, it’s easier to play links golf especially.
“Now I’m just so happy it’s over because it was a tough, tough leaderboard. There were a lot of guys at 11, 12, 13 under and it was just not a cruising win at all. Thinking about it this morning, how much it would mean, it feels like miles away. And now when it happens, it just feels unbelievable.”
After extending his two-shot overnight lead with a birdie on the second, Noren failed to make the most of several other good opportunities before just his fourth bogey of the week on the eighth allowed Lee to draw level thanks to his third birdie of the day on the 10th.
An eagle followed by three birdies in succession had lifted Colsaerts to within a shot of the lead alongside Hatton and Manassero, but Noren edged back in front with a two-putt birdie from long range on the par-five 12th and produced a superb approach on the 15th to set up another, which proved to be decisive.
Hatton, who had struggled to a closing 75 when in the final group in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in May, said: “I’m really happy with that result.
“Part of me is slightly disappointed in a way, finishing one short. But I played well. Tried to stay as patient as I can and I find that one of the difficult aspects. But I’m just quite happy I guess.
“Earlier on in the year, after the start I had where I missed a few chances, there was a good chance my head would have gone down. But my caddie was trying to keep me upbeat and trying to stay positive.
“Luckily a couple of shots dropped on the back nine and second outright equals my best finish on the European Tour. A spot in the Open next week, as well as securing the US PGA Championship in a few weeks’ time, as well. Overall, it’s been a really good week.”
Manassero’s share of third place represented a welcome return to form for the 23-year-old, who won four times on the European Tour by the age of 20 but had slumped to 596th before the start of the week after changing his technique to try to add distance to his game.
“I’m really happy of course, to play well in such a big event for me,” Manassero said. “Right now it’s a great relief from a lot of things and I’m glad that I handled myself really well in this week, which was not easy at all.
“It’s a while since I’ve been in this position and I’m very happy. All these struggles and hard work and stuff are obviously paying off and hopefully next time I’ll be holding a trophy.”
Ramsay was delighted to secure his sixth appearance in the Open and a first for baby daughter Olivia, who was born in February.
“It’s huge,” Ramsay said after a closing 67. “I’ve played it a few times before and I don’t think I’ve done myself justice, but this time we have our little daughter to take along. I think she’ll enjoy her first major. It’s more of a treat for her.
“The great thing was I played to win today, which is a great feeling when you’re in that position in front of a home crowd on a great golf course.”
The Scottish Open could finish on a Saturday in future to avoid a clash with the Wimbledon men’s singles final, according to the tournament sponsor.
A combination of bad weather and plenty of alternative sporting events has resulted in poor attendances in Inverness this week, with 33,076 coming through the gates before yesterday’s final round.
The last time the event was staged at Castle Stuart in 2013, the total for the week was 65,528.
“One of the thoughts is to start the Scottish Open a day earlier, on the Wednesday, so that we are not up against Wimbledon,” Aberdeen Asset Management chief executive Martin Gilbert said.
“With Andy Murray (in the final), it’s going to be a tough choice.
“Now that Wimbledon has moved permanently, you have to look at it, and TV would be happier because they would have something on the Wednesday as well.”
The Scottish Open is guaranteed its coveted place in the calendar the week before the Open Championship up to and including 2020, although the Irish Open – hosted by Rory McIlroy – is keen for that to change.
“As (European Tour chief executive) Keith Pelley said, this is tied in to this date until 2020, no matter what Rory says,” Gilbert added.
“I keep telling them they should switch the Irish and the French Open, and then you have the Irish, Scottish then the British. That would be the much more logical arrangement.
“We wouldn’t commit beyond 2020 without knowing it was this date. Keith wouldn’t be able to come back up to Scotland if he took it away.
“As long as we keep up with (other) events, I don’t see it changing myself.”
Next year’s event will be staged at Dundonald for the first time, with Gilbert then keen on a return to previous venues Gullane and Royal Aberdeen.
Rickie Fowler won at Gullane 12 months ago but did not return to defend his title due to the condensed schedule caused by golf’s return to the Olympics.
“Looking at it selfishly, it’s a nuisance,” Gilbert admitted.