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Brad Neil's short game proves decisive as he holds off South African

Perthshire may be bracing itself for the onslaught of the Ryder Cup bandwagon but the good golfing folk of the Big County will be scribbling a couple more significant dates into their diaries now.

Bradley Neil in full flow during the final of the Amateur Championship. Picture: Patrick Bolger/Getty
Bradley Neil in full flow during the final of the Amateur Championship. Picture: Patrick Bolger/Getty

Bradley Neil's superb victory in the Amateur Championship at Royal Portrush yesterday might just have sparked a celebratory lock-in at the Blairgowrie clubhouse last night as the enormity of the 18-year-old's success began to sink in.

Not only has this outstandingly talented young man claimed the unpaid game's most cherished prize with a battling 2 & 1 victory over South Africa's Zander Lombard in the 36-hole showdown, he has also earned the additional benefits of a place in July's Open, next April's Masters and the 2015 US Open. Neil has probably been inundated with calls for guest passes already.

Prior to yesterday's triumph, Neil, the Scottish Boys' champion last year, had stated that this was the best season of his blossoming career. He had just about done everything but win on the senior amateur circuit. Seven top-10s had included two third-place finishes and three seconds, the most recent coming a fortnight ago when he was beaten in a play-off at the St Andrews Links Trophy.

"You can't plan if you will win an event," said Neil, whose golf daft dad, Rod, must have covered just about every blade of Portrush grass over the past week. "You see guys win one week on tour then miss the cut the next. You just have to prepare as best you can and accept what happens on the day.

"My season has been amazing. It's been my best year and this caps it off. All the work I've done has been building to this.

"I've been close this season and it's been a bit demoralising that I haven't got over the final hurdle, but the great players keep at it and stay convinced that it will happen and that's the approach you have to take."

The last time a Scot played a South African in the Amateur final was back in 1997, the year after Neil was born, when Craig Watson overcame Trevor Immelman.

Lombard, an impressive campaigner from Pretoria who was aiming to become the first player from the Rainbow Nation to win the title since Bobby Cole in 1966, posed a serious threat to Neil's ambitions and it quickly became apparent that this matchplay tussle would be an intriguing, closely fought affair. Indeed, there was never more than one hole in it until the 29th, when Neil inched two ahead.

Lombard was certainly the steadier player in the morning. He hit 16 of the 18 greens in regulation compared to Neil's eight, but those figures count for little in the matchplay format. The Scot's superb short game salvaged a variety of situations while Lombard spurned at least half a dozen decent birdie opportunities.

The pendulous nature of the encounter was illustrated on the eighth. Neil was forced to hack his ball out from a tangle in thick rough following a wayward drive while Lombard, handily placed off the tee, knocked a sand-wedge into 18 feet. Neil showed his grit, though, and plonked his third shot to five feet. Lombard's birdie attempt to go two up failed to drop and the spirited Scot saved his par. It summed up Neil's tenacity.

"There were times I kept saying to myself 'hang on in there'," he added. "There was no way I was going to let something as big as this slip; no chance."

All-square at lunch, the match was still desperately tight until the latter stages. Lombard stumbled to damaging bogeys at the 28th and 29th to fall two behind and then made a double-bogey on the 31st and another bogey on the 32nd to give Neil a commanding four-hole lead. But just as Neil looked like he was home and hosed, the South African rallied with a brace of birdies at the 33rd and the 34th to reduce the leeway and crank up the tension.

Neil, a confident, composed and considered competitor, held his nerve though and staved off those menacing advances to become the first Scottish champion since Stuart Wilson in 2004.

They'll be hanging up the bunting in Blairgowrie.

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