Aaron Rai claims 'dream' Scottish Open win in East Lothian
Englishman beats world No 17 Tommy Fleetwood in play-off at Renaissance Club
Talk about being in a different league. Five years after winning £10,000, as well as a golf trolley and a rangefinder, for a PGA EuroPro Tour victory at Mar Hall in Renfrewshire, Aaron Rai walked away with a cheque for £867,000 after coming out on top in the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open at The Renaissance Club.
With all due respect, the 25-year-old from Wolverhampton emerged as a surprise winner of the $7 million Rolex Series event, firstly holding off some big names in the final round on the East Lothian coast before beating Tommy Fleetwood, the highest-ranked player in the field, at the first extra hole in a play-off.
Rai, who recorded his maiden win on the European Tour in the 2018 Hong Kong Open, made par from a fairway bunker on the 18th in regulation play before repeating the feat from almost the same spot in the shoot-out. It had been advantage Fleetwood after the pair had hit their tee shots, but the world No 17 made 5 from the middle of the fairway as he badly pulled a three-foot par putt.
"It's incredible, a dream come true," admitted Rai, who had closed with a 64 to finish alongside Fleetwood (67) on 11-under-par, one ahead of another Englishman, overnight leader Robert Rock, who paid the price for a poor chip at the 18th as a 5 to finish cost him a spot in that play-off.
Rai's previous success on Scottish soil had come in the Glenfarclas Open on the third-tier PGA EuroPro Tour. "I remember it a lot," he admitted. "I turned pro in 2012 and looked at guys competing on the EuroPro at that time and wanted to compete with them.
"That was the first tournament I had a chance to win and it was a really big moment at that time. On that tour, you have to finish in the top five on the money-list to progress up the ladder, so a win was really important. I won a golf trolley and a Bushnell rangefinder. It is different to almost a million pounds (laughing).
"I most definitely wouldn't be standing here today if it hadn't been for that win. The margins are so small from the satellite tours or Challenge Tour. It was incredibly important."
He’s up to fifth in the Race to Dubai while the win is set to propel him into the top 100 in the world, but he almost shrugged that off. "I think first and foremost, I think being able to draw on this experience and the one last week probably has more value than world ranking points," he said.
"It's nice to be potentially be able to draw on that in the future. Golf is a very changeable game, but this can certainly put me in a good position going forward."
Rai, who had a chance to force a play-off in the previous week's Dubai Duty Free Irish Open until pulling his second shot at the last at Galgorm Castle into a horrible spot, produced a polished last-day performance.
On a course that showed no signs whatsoever of the absolute pounding it had taken from the continuous rain on Saturday, he dropped a shot at the second before hitting his stride with five birdies in six holes on the front nine. He then picked up further shots at the 12th, 13th and 16th coming home before salvaging a great par at the last after the first of those two visits into the same bunker.
Fleetwood, who was bidding for a third success on Scottish soil, having won the 2009 Scottish Open Stroke-Play Championship as an amateur at Murcar then the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles three years later after switching to the pro ranks, was left to rue a poor putting performance on the final day.
He'd already failed to convert good chances at both the 12th and 13th before missing from three feet for a birdie at the 16th. The world No 17 then knocked in a 15-footer for a 3 at the last to force the play-off, only for the flat stick to let him down badly in that.
“I just fell short, really," he said afterwards. "It’s been a good week. I felt like I played really well today, especially on that back-nine. But my putting really cost me this week. That last one summed it up, really. It was just a straight pull. It’s disappointing. You always try to look at the positives, but I cocked it up on the first play-off hole. And that’s that."
Had the missed short putt at the 16th been in the back of his mind? "Not really," he insisted. "I missed a lot of putts inside five or six feet this week, but today I didn't feel as if I hit bad putts at all. I hit good putts on 12 and 13th that burned the edge of the hole. At 16, I should have knocked that one in, but I didn't feel I hit a bad putt.
"I'm not happy about it one bit, really, but it's happened. It’s Aaron’s time, Aaron’s week. He played great last week, too. So he’s a worthy winner.
"I'll sulk for a bit then move on. I'm sure there are positives when I get to Wentworth (for the BMW PGA Championship starting on Thursday), but it just stinks right now.
"I struggled with my game after Covid and playing in America (he missed the cut in last month’s US Open at Winged Foot). But today I was in full control of my game. What I’ve been working on is coming good. For a lot of this week I felt more like the player I should be.”
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