ASH England (Reuters) - Finn Mikko Ilonen landed the biggest title of his career by beating top seed Henrik Stenson 3 & 1 in an all-Nordic final at the Volvo World Match Play Championship on Sunday.
Ilonen, winner of the Irish Open in June, took a grip on proceedings when world number five Stenson found the water guarding the green at the par-three eighth hole.
The 34-year-old stretched his lead to two holes by sinking an eight-foot putt at the 11th and his Swedish rival showed his frustration at a woeful tee shot at the short 12th, which finished 50 yards from the green, by slamming his club into the turf.
Tenth seed Ilonen, making his first appearance in the tournament, splashed out from a bunker to five feet and when he slotted home his par putt it put him three up on a sunny but breezy day at the London Club in Kent.
Stenson reduced the arrears with a birdie at the long 15th after finding the green in two but when he failed to hole out from 20 feet at the 17th it was all over.
“This is the best year of my career by far,” Ilonen told Sky Sports television after seeing his name engraved on the trophy alongside golfing greats like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Nick Faldo, Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros.
“Last year was good for me and 2007 was a good year. I’ve had a few of them but... obviously this is top,” added the world number 52 after picking up the first prize of 650,000 euros ($829,205) and his fifth victory on the European Tour.
Ilonen, the first Scandinavian to win the World Match Play in the anniversary 50th edition of the competition, reached the final by defeating Dutchman Joost Luiten 2 & 1 on Sunday morning.
“It was a long day for the spectators and, playing in that wind in the afternoon, I think I‘m going to feel it tonight at some point,” said the Finn.
“I see Henrik as one of the world’s top players obviously but I also see him as my friend. We’ve played so much golf together over the years and I felt quite comfortable playing with him,” said Ilonen.
“It could have gone either way really and I just had a better afternoon than he did. We could play tomorrow morning and it might go the other way.”
Stenson, 38, scraped through his semi-final after holing a 25-foot birdie putt at the 18th to beat South African George Coetzee by one hole.
”I was quite low on energy in the afternoon,“ said the Swede. ”I feel like I’ve been battling my swing a little bit in these gusting conditions for the last day and a half.
“I didn’t play my best but no question Mikko didn’t make any mistakes really. All credit to him for his fine performance this week.”
In the third place playoff, Luiten beat Coetzee at the 19th hole.
($1 = 0.7839 euros)
Editing by Brian Homewood and Ian Chadband