Hermitage’s Rowan Lester held his nerve to claim victory at The Murray Timber Group sponsored Connacht Stroke Play Championship at Portmuna Golf Club on Sunday.
The Dubliner entered the final round of the penultimate tournament in this year’s Bridgestone Order of Merit with a commanding four-shot advantage at six-under par but the quality of the chasing pack ensured it was anything but easy in Galway.
Lester, who last year became the sixth Irishman to win the Nassau Invitational in New York, saw his lead reduced to just one stroke when he double-bogeyed the par-3 fifth; Kilkenny’s Mark Power looming large at four-under par after picking up an early birdie.
However, Lester recovered, bouncing back with a birdie at the par-5 sixth before adding another at the eighth to reach the turn in even par and remain at six-under.
When two-time Irish Boys champion, Power moved to five-under par through 14 holes, again Lester’s lead was reduced to one but the 2017 North of Ireland champion drew on his experience and picked up a crucial gain on the par-4 15th to re-establish a two-shot cushion with three holes to play.
It was up to Power to apply the pressure from there but when the semi-finalist at this year’s Amateur had no more blows to land, Lester was able to par home for a closing 71, a seven-under par winning tally and a worthy two stroke win.
“I’m delighted to get across the line,” said Lester. “I’ve never won a 72-hole stroke play event, it was something I always wanted to do. I won a North, a few tournaments in America that were 54-holes, but I feel like a true champion is decided over 72-holes.
“It wasn’t easy – I had a great couple of up and downs on the back nine and holed a few good putts so yeah, I’m chuffed.”
Where some players are leader board watchers down the stretch on a Sunday, Lester admits it wasn’t until after his tee shot on the 16th that he checked his position in the scoring charts for the first time.
“I hadn’t a clue until I hit my tee shot on 16,” Lester revealed. “I didn’t hit a great one but I checked then to see what the scores were. I saw Mark [Power] was at 5-under and he could’ve picked one up coming in so I knew I had to play fairly solid or he could’ve caught me.”
Three pars would prove enough with Power unable to make any more inroads leaving Lester to reflect on a special win in unusual circumstances, given just how depleted the amateur playing calendar has been this year.
“It hasn’t really been much of a season to be honest,” Lester said. “It was nice to go over to the British Amateur. It’s all just been a bit mad though. I’ve been playing nice golf but it’s weird not having a schedule to work off.”
All roads now point north to Rosapenna for this season’s Bridgestone finale – the AIG Irish Close Championship from October 9-11. The new Connacht Stroke Play champion was somewhat reluctantly looking forward to it!
“In October,” Lester pondered. “It’s going to be windy – it’s just going to be a stressful week but you can’t not go! It’s a big Irish championship. Hopefully we get some good weather like we got here this weekend but yeah, I’m looking forward to it.”
Meanwhile, Power finished in second place at five-under as he gears up for this coming week’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open after earning an invite to Galgorm Castle.
Elm Park’s John Cleary closed with a three-under par round of 69 to grab outright third at minus-four.
The round of the day belonged to Carton House’s Marc Boucher who carded a magnificent eight birdies in his bogey-free 64 that propelled him to a share of fourth place alongside Bridgestone Order of Merit leader, Alan Fahy at three-under par.
The Dun Laoghaire ace Fahy (240) extended his lead on the Bridgestone ladder to 60 points with Galway’s Liam Nolan (180), who finished sixth at Portumna, in second place and Mark Power (178) two points back in third.
With the win, Lester moves into a share of 10th on 100 points with just one event to go in the 2020 Bridgestone Series.