20 Nov 2016
Ash Hall had never been so close to winning a truly big tournament, but in the end, he just wanted to give that birdie putt in the playoff against Jordan Spieth and Cameron Smith a chance to go in.
All week at Royal Sydney, he had struggled to find the right length on the greens. "I just wanted to be positive and essentially give it a chance,'' he said later. "I was possibly a little too positive, but I did what I wanted to do. I gave it a chance.''
Hall, the 33-year-old from Melbourne, had found himself in a three-man playoff for the Emirates
Australian Open after closing with a brilliant 66. Rolling in a birdie putt on the 18th hole in regulation, he had the clubhouse lead at 12-under, but Geoff Ogilvy was on the course at 13-under.
Then Ogilvy fell away, and the dominoes fell. The 2010 champion blew his own chances away in the time it took to bogey the 15th where he hit missed the green left, and double bogeyed the par-five 16th when he flared his drive right into the trees and took two shots to extricate his ball, and of all the players who drove out of Royal Sydney last night, it was Ogilvy who would have felt the most regret. "It was mine there for a while, probably," he admitted.
Hall went to the range to keep loose and soon had Smith for company at 12-under after the Queenslander, 10 years his junior, bogeyed the 72nd hole to drop a shot. Smith, too, shot 66; they could hardly complain later.
Smith, just a couple of years into his professional life, roared into contention with three straight birdies at the 12th, 13th and 14th (a tap-in after a brilliant tee shot), by which time he had a hand on the lead. He saw the leaderboards, and knew what was happening, but he was mostly nerveless.
Opportunities came and past, moments that will haunt him. He missed a birdie putt from just outside a metre at the par-four 15th "that went left'', and from four metres at the par-five 16th, he left his putt in the jaws. But at the long, par three 17th he hit a wonderful tee shot and rolled the putt in to return to 13-under and hold the lead.
The 18th at Royal Sydney is easy enough so long as you don't go left, and with three wood in hand, Smith did. Off the club he thought it a decent tee shot, but it clipped a tree, and dropped down, leaving him no direct line to the green. He punched it into the right trap, hit a decent bunker shot to just under two metres, but missed the putt, high side of the hole. "I thought it'd go right, but it went straight then broke after it went past.''
He signed for 12-under, and went to the range while Spieth, the inexorable one, completed his round. When the American came up 18, he needed par to join the others in a playoff, which he managed. So back down the 18th they went in karts, with an enormous crowd gathering in the greatest amphitheatre in Australian golf.
All three players found the fairway and then Spieth his it to four metres, a laser beam of a nine iron. Hall hit is a fraction closer, spinning off the bank just right of the pin. Smith's wedge hit the ridge halfway up the green and spun back to 20 metres from the flag, a mistake by the finest of margins. Unable to hole out from there, he marked and watched Spieth stride to his ball.
Spieth drained it, to no one's surprise, not least the other players. "You always expect him to hole it,'' said Hall. "I knew he was going to hole it.''
So Ash Hall, who missed his European Tour card this year, with no status to play overseas and with two young children at home in Melbourne, was last man standing with just beyond two metres for birdie and to continue the playoff. A little right-to-lefter to keep going. And he smashed it through the break, "way too hard and a bit too far to the right. It's pretty flat around the hole''.
Spieth was the winner, a worthy champion. Hall and Smith had to be content with a tie for second and a spot in the field for the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale next year. For Hall, it was validation after he had begun to consider his future. "I've got a couple of young kids so I have to keep the money flowing in, and it hasn't been going to well,'' he said. "I'm going to keep playing golf now. I hope so, I'll have to speak to the wife anyway. I'm going to have a bit of a lull before the Open so I might do something to keep my mind active. I'm not very good at beating balls on the range.''
Smith is just 23 and with years of great golf ahead of him. "It was a bit of a bummer but I'm really quite proud of myself,'' he said. "I flew in on Wednesday, had a crappy day on Thursday with the jet lag, and played really good for three days to get into contention, which was definitely more than I expected after Thursday.''