As he was the first to admit, there wasn’t a lot of pressure on Rod Pampling before he teed off in the final round of the 100th Australian Open. Actually, make that no pressure. Four over par after rounds of 71-72-74, the 46-year old Queenslander was a yawning 14 shots behind the overnight leader and soon-to-be champion, Matt Jones. Teeing off more than three hours ahead of Jones, Pampling was seemingly playing only for pride and prize money.
A bogey at the first gave no hint of what was to follow, although the former Australian Masters champion does have some previous when it comes to fast-finishes in Australian Opens at The Australian club. One year ago he closed his final round with five birdies in the last six holes to finish second behind Jordan Spieth, albeit a distant six shots behind the young American. Still, perhaps more importantly, Pampling was one of three men to claim a spot in the Open Championship at St. Andrews – where he was given the honour of hitting the opening tee-shot of the first round off the historic first tee.
This time round, even those year-old pyrotechnics paled into relative insignificance when compared with the performance Pampling produced over the last 17 holes of this testing 7,200-yard layout. After that dropped shot at the par-4 opening hole, the two-time PGA Tour champion rattled off nine birdies and, on the closing hole, the unlikeliest of eagles. After finding the front edge of the green with his 3-wood approach, Pampling signed off with a 60-foot putt that never looked like missing.
“This is one of those rounds that hasn’t quite sunk in,” he said in the immediate aftermath of breaking Spieth’s course record by two shots. “I know I hit it good. But today was a bonus because the putts went in as well. It doesn’t matter how you play, if your putts don’t go in, you don’t score.
“I felt nice and relaxed right to the end. I was seeing the putts really well, but I much admit that one on the last was a bit of a bonus. I was trying to give it a chance but I was also trying to make sure I still made the birdie.”
In the end, it all proved to be not quite good enough, but Pampling’s extraordinary finish was enough to do two things: guarantee him a place in the 2016 Open at Royal Troon (Jones and Nick Cullen claimed the other two spots) and, at the age of 46, confirm his continued competitiveness at the highest level.
“I might not be in quite the same shape I used to be in when I was a young fellow,” he said with a smile. “But I’m healthy. I have no injuries. I love the game still. I’m not looking at hanging anything up. I know I can still play. I know I can compete. I might be 40-50 yards behind some of these young guys off the tee these days, but I know how to get the ball around. I certainly feel like I’ve got plenty left in me.
“I’m obviously delighted to have played this well. I went out there with no number in mind. Only when I was coming down the stretch did I think a bit more about what was happening. Even then, I was never really in contention until the last two holes. And when I finished I still had no idea if I had done enough to win.”
As it turned out, of course, he had not. But, at least for a while with the leaders all faltering, it looked like Pampling’s four-round total of 278, six-under par, might just be enough to make him the new champion. If only that bogey at the first had been a birdie. Just kidding.