A brilliant wedge from the dirt fringe of the treeline set up the stunning birdie that crowned Australian Lucas Herbert as the first winner of the historic ISPS HANDA Championship Japan.
Sinking the 11-foot putt to follow shut out Canadian Aaron Cockerill in a gripping two-hole play-off after the pair had finished locked at 15-under-par. ISPS HANDA chairman Dr Haruhisa Handa presented Herbert with a samurai kabuto as a unique trophy to crown the success of the first DP World Tour event staged in Japan with the co-sanctioning of the JGTO.
Herbert will earn a cherished start at The Open Championship at Royal Liverpool in July after surging back into the world Top 50 with his fourth win as a pro. One of the big bonuses of Herbert’s triumph wasn’t even in his thinking on a see-sawing final day of thrills at the PMG Ishioka Golf Club, north-east of Tokyo.
That is the future. Herbert is always one for the present.
“Celebration vibes. We are not thinking of anything else,” a delighted Herbert said after holding his nerve in the play-off.
On the final play-off hole, his mind had to focus on how to make something from a rare drive that drifting right into the trees. He got the lucky break of free relief off a cart path. Placing the ball gave him a tilted lie of dirt and sparse grass that a mid-handicapper would have thought treacherous.
Herbert was relaxed: “It could have been the end of us. It bounced into an awkward spot but I got pretty lucky to get a good lie after we took a drop.
“It was basically a perfect sand wedge distance for a fuller shot that I knew I could get some spin on. And to get it in close, it just felt like if I didn’t take that chance, it was going to potentially hurt me later. I knew I had to take advantage.”
Herbert and caddie Nick Pugh calculated 129yds over a bunker to the back right pin. Herbert hit it perfectly to close range. When Cockerill missed his longer putt, after lipping out for the win on the first play-off hole, destiny was with Herbert. He holed his at perfect speed.
”My hand was shaking all over the place just to get the putt started on line. To have it fall in was pretty cool,” Herbert said with a satisfied smile. “I’m very happy to have won in a country I love coming to. To have this memory of winning a tournament here is pretty special.
“It’s a real honour to win an event that Dr Handa has supported. Only coming on board as an ambassador for ISPS HANDA this year, it’s great to win an event with them as the title sponsor and meet Dr Handa for the first time.”
Herbert (67-63-68-67) closed with a three-under round and several clutch par putts over the final six holes. His final wedge was brilliant under pressure but his shot of the week came on the 576yd par five fifth. After bombing his drive down the fairway, Herbert hit a perfect, high-drawing five wood 256yd. The ball rode the breeze and nestled inside 10ft of the pin.
Sinking the eagle putt vaulted him to the lead on a day when Scotland’s Grant Forrest and Cockerill also held or shared it. Cockerill (64-69-64-68) played some fine golf himself as he chased his maiden title. A birdie putt on the 15th enabled him to rejoin the lead and a superb sand save on the 18th got him into the play-off.
Herbert had one of the best driving weeks of his career by the rating of caddie Pugh, hitting better than 75 per cent of fairways for the four rounds.
Herbert was forced to watch the Masters at Augusta National on TV earlier this month because his ranking had slipped outside the Top 50 for automatic entry. This victory lifted him from No.59 to No.42. He need only hold that position inside the Top 50 by early June to earn his start at The Open in July.
Herbert’s resume gets more impressive by the year. His four wins have been worldwide in Dubai, Ireland, Bermuda and now Japan and in all types of conditions. He was the highest-ranked player in the field for this championship and that fed into his self-talk in “the tough moments”. “You look at the best players in the world over the years where they have gone to events where they are the best player in the field and won, so it’s very satisfying,” he said.