Travelling to the Algarve last week, George Coetzee had some impressive pedigree in his golfing luggage. At 34 he was a four-time Tour champion, but all those wins had come in Africa: three in his home country of South Africa and one in Mauritius. At the end of the week, he had rectified that anomaly, with a two-stroke victory in the Portugal Masters.
His first Tour victory on European soil was achieved with an impeccable short game that helped him fend off the challenges of several players, including 2017 European Tour number one Tommy Fleetwood, at 16th the highest world-ranked player in the field.
Coetzee carded a spotless final-round 66, including five birdies and some excellent par saves. He parred his opening six holes to slip from the top of the leaderboard but, staying patient, he made his first birdies on the seventh and eighth to regain a one-stroke lead.
He birdied the 11th and came home strongly with two more birdies on the 16th and 17th to move to 16-under par and enjoy a two-shot cushion as he teed off on the 18th.
A nerveless final par secured a second win in a row, as he had also lifted the Titleist Championship trophy at Pretoria Country Club on the Sunshine Tour the previous week.
Englishman Laurie Canter was second on 14-under after a matching flawless 66, and countryman Fleetwood shared third place another stroke back with Swede Joakim Lagergren.
Speaking after his “breakthrough” triumph, Coetzee said, “(Winning in Europe) was the next step for me really. I have always had a list of things I wanted to achieve in my career as a golfer and originally I never thought I would get as far as winning on the European Tour, so ticking that box a while back was really nice, and then I started to realise that I was a bit comfortable playing back home and I needed to go to the next step and win away from home.
“And then I won in Mauritius, which still counts as a Sunshine Tour event, so I still felt like I needed to get off my continent and win something else. So I am just happy that I kind of ticked the box in the right order.
“I remember as an amateur I had to win a national stroke play event and then try and win one of the big three national match play events. I ended up winning the South African amateur match play before I won the stroke play event, and I felt like I needed to take a step back and figure out how to win a stroke play event. It is nice that I am ticking the boxes that I have set for myself.”
In spite of falling short of victory, Fleetwood was still delighted with his performance, before heading to Winged Foot Golf Club in New York for this week’s U.S. Open Championship.
The Ryder Cup star began the final round five shots behind Coetzee but a 64 set the clubhouse target and put him into serious contention with Coetzee still out on the course.
“I’m happy with how I played,” said 29-year-old Fleetwood, “and it’s nice to put yourself in contention after hitting shots like on the 17th and 18th coming down the stretch. I did some really good practice (before the event) and I wanted to play this week because, at the end of the day, I was working on things that I know were right, I had simple thoughts this week, but you have to hit shots like 17 and that is the only time you are going to find out how it’s doing. So that was my most pleasing thing, the way I played, the way I hit it.”
On the eve of the tournament, Fleetwood had explained his surprising Algarve detour, before the second major of the year, to Golf Digest…
“This week was something that popped up on my schedule. I haven’t played as I would want recently. So I wanted some ‘real’ golf before Winged Foot. Last year, I arrived at Pebble Beach for the U.S. Open not having played for three weeks, which was a mistake. I came off saying I won’t do that again. I wasn’t as sharp as I would like to be. So the Portugal Masters is an ideal opportunity for me to play competitively. Plus, the course is different this year. There is a bit of rough up. So it’s a tougher test. It will be good preparation.”
The European Tour now moves up the Portuguese coast to Royal Óbidos.