LONDON (Reuters) - Nine years after Mikko Ilonen was at his wits end with the dreaded putting yips, the Finn has finally cracked golf’s big time by winning the Volvo World Match Play Championship.
His 3 & 1 victory over world number five Henrik Stenson in an all-Nordic final at the London Club on Sunday not only clinched his biggest payday, it also catapulted the 34-year-old to a career high 37th in the rankings.
The blond Ilonen now knows he can plan for his first U.S. Masters appearance as a professional at Augusta in April, as well as prepare to receive invitations to the three other majors and all the World Golf Championship events.
“It’s been a goal of mine to be able to get a schedule where you can pick and choose wherever you want to play,” he told reporters after picking up the first prize of 650,000 euros ($829,725).
“I can do that now so it’s a good situation. I can play the bigger tournaments. I’ve been striving for that for the last couple of years.”
It is almost a decade since he was afflicted by the yips but Ilonen still looks upon his left hand as next to useless when he grips the shortest club in the bag.
“At the end of 2005, the beginning of 2006, I made a couple of decisions concerning my putting,” said the 6-foot-1 (1.87-metre) Finn. “And from there I’ve turned the page and never really looked back.
“I’ve had my problems with the putter and I never wish anyone to experience the problems I had. Anyone who has been there, you know how bad they are.”
Ilonen is much more comfortable with the putter now that he uses an unorthodox interlocking grip.
“I changed my grip a couple of years ago, it’s a reverse interlock with the left hand going into the middle of the right hand,” he explained. “It’s been helping me a lot, even more than the changes I made in 2006.
“I haven’t seen anyone else using it, I found it completely by accident. I’m trying to eliminate my left hand completely,” said Ilonen.
“My left hand is no good. I would cut it off if I could,” he joked.
Ilonen’s win over Swede Stenson secured the Finn his fifth European Tour title but by far the most prestigious.
The World Match Play has been won by the greatest names in golf since it was founded in 1964.
The new champion was typically self-effacing when he was asked how it felt to join the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Greg Norman on the roll of honor.
“I think they are going to look at it and say, ‘what is Mikko Ilonen doing there on the trophy?’,” he laughed. “It’s amazing though — it’s going to take a little while to sink in.
“I believe in my own abilities. If I play good I can beat any one of these guys ... but at the same time I’ve had some fun this week. That’s why I interact with the crowd whenever possible.
“For the last five days I’ve been singing a Finnish song in my head. This will be big back home, even bigger because we’ve always been comparing ourselves with Swedes especially in sport,” said Ilonen.
“At home they will look at this final as beating Sweden. I didn’t feel like that because Henrik is a friend. It was nice to play him but it was also nice to come out on top.”
Editing by Nick Mulvenney