Cunning's achievement

PATIENCE finally paid off for Mike Cunning. The 44-year-old American's search for a title on the Asian PGA Tour ended with a resounding five-stroke victory in the Royal Challenge Indian Open.

RAKESH RAO

Mike Cunning (right), of the U.S., is jubilant after winning the Indian Open.-Pic. V. SUDERSHAN

PATIENCE finally paid off for Mike Cunning. The 44-year-old American's search for a title on the Asian PGA Tour ended with a resounding five-stroke victory in the Royal Challenge Indian Open. Not just that. His winning tally of 18-under 270 was the lowest in the 40-year history of the championship.

More than the record, or for that matter, the reward of 50,000 dollars, what left Cunning pleased was that his self-belief stood vindicated. The 1997 Asian PGA Order of Merit winner had come close to winning the title on several occasions but did not do the needful on the final day.

``After coming close to winning on so many occasions and not taking the Cup on Sunday, one tends to doubt one's abilities. But I believed that I still had some game left,'' was how the quiet man from Arizona put it.

But the last Sunday of March proved to be one of the most fruitful working days for Cunning since turning professional in 1980. Starting the day in the third place, Cunning fired 10 birdies and simply blew away all competition. He had five birdies on the first six holes and finished in great style by finding five more on the last six!

At one stage, it did appear to be a neck-and-neck race between Cunning and South Africa's James Kingston. Both were tied at 13-under par, with Kingston playing two holes ahead of Cunning on the 14th. However, Kingston, who had caught up with Cunning with his career's third `albatross', failed to find any birdie on the back nine and fell back.

Rick Gibson, last year's runner-up, retained the slot, but not before going through some anxious moments after finishing his round. Gibson had come out with a final hole birdie for a score of 13-under. He joined the gallery on the 18th green where the leading group was set to putt.

Even as the majority was interested in knowing whether Cunning would find his 10th birdie of the day, Gibson was wishing that Adam Groom would not improve upon his score of 12-under. Much to the relief of Gibson, the Sydney-based Groom found par and settled for the third place jointly with Kingston.

Groom, playing his first event on the Asian Tour after turning pro late last year, more than justified his entry here as an `invitee'. He started the final round in the second place behind home favourite Jyoti Randhawa and despite a 71, his worst round in four days, gained plenty.

From India's point of view, the final day came as a disappointment for over 5,000 people who thronged the Delhi Golf Club course. Much was expected from Randhawa but once he double-bogeyed the third hole and bogeyed four times in the space of six holes, the hopes of watching an Indian win the coveted trophy evaporated.

Randhawa, the 2000 winner who topped the Asian Tour Order of Merit last season, did appear on course after rounds of 66, 71 and 67. But the ball did not roll his way on the final day and a 74 pulled him down to the shared sixth-place with teammate Arjun Atwal.

Atwal struggled with his putting right through the competition. A four-putt on the opening day showed that Atwal needed to work harder to get it right on the greens. He did spend nearly two hours on the practice green that evening but the results did not show as expected. Atwal needed as many as 36 putts on the second day for a round of 72. On the third day, he shot eight birdies but a triple-bogey marred his card. On the last day, too, the birdie-putts did not drop and Atwal never emerged as a contender.

Digvijay Singh, who finished third in the last edition, was the other Indian who did his bit. Currently second on the domestic tour, Digvijay could not strike when needed. Rounds of 69, 73, 67 and 71 reflected a pattern which cannot be termed as consistent. He came joint-10th in the company of Craig Kamps.

Pushed into the background was Myanmar's Zaw Moe. He set the ball rolling with a course-record of nine-under 63 on the opening day on way to the top of the leaderboard. Even on the second day, Moe remained on top but had the company of Groom and Kingston. He was joint third after the third round but eventually finished fifth.

For the record, the earlier best of 64 was jointly held by Rohtas Singh, the 1998 Open winner, Canada's Remi Bouchard and Arjun Singh.

Much was expected from Australia's Brad Kennedy but he proved a disappointment. Two par rounds just about helped Kennedy make the `cut', before cards of 71 and 68 gave him the joint-17th spot.

Though Kennedy was lucky to survive the `cut' which came at an unprecedented 144, some of the giants of the domestic tour fell by the wayside.

Defending champion Vijay Kumar, Mukesh Kumar, with 10 titles under his belt this season, two-time Open champion Ali Sher and the seasoned Rohtas Singh were among those who did make it to the weekend. Among the Asian Tour regulars, the reigning Hero Honda Masters champion Harmeet Kahlon, too, was part of the casualty list.

With over 100 overseas professionals, including several Asian Tour winners, in the field of 156, it was surely the strongest ever in the country in recent times.

With superior equipment, as well as technique, of the players helping in bringing in lower scores, there was no doubt that some of the domestic tour regulars would have to work much harder in order to match wits with the overseas contenders.

For Chandigarh's Harinder Gupta, the amateur title was his for the taking after he remained the only non-professional after the `cut'. The youngster, followed his rounds of 70s, with 76 and 72 for an incredible level-par score for the event.

The first day saw two hole-in-one efforts. Australia's Marcus Both holed the 183-yard fifth hole and Korea's Jung Gi-Ho covered a similar distance on the seventh.

However, Both had reason to believe that he found the hole-in-one a bit too early in the tournament. Only if Both had holed the fifth hole on the third or fourth days, he would have won a Mercedes Benz. On the third day, Amritinder Singh came the closest to winning the prized car. His shot lipped the cup and he missed the car.

Final scores:

1. Mike Cunning (US) (69, 69, 68, 64) 270; 2. Rick Gibson (Can) (65, 72, 69, 69) 275; 3. James Kingston (RSA) (69, 67, 71, 69) and Adam Groom (Aus) (67, 69, 69, 71) 276; 5. Zaw Moe (Myn) (63, 73, 70, 71) 277; 6. Arjun Atwal (Ind) (69, 72, 67, 70) and Jyoti Randhawa (Ind) (66, 71, 67, 70) 278; 8. Aung Win (Myn) (71, 68, 71, 68) and Mo Joong Kyung (Kor) (69, 71, 67, 70) 279; 10. Craig Kamps (RSA) (73, 69, 69, 69) and Digvijay Singh (Ind) (69, 73, 67, 71) 280.

Other Indians: Amritinder Singh (69, 74, 69, 69) 281; Yusuf Ali (70, 72, 71, 70) 283; Zai Kigpen (74, 67, 73, 70) and Shiv Prakash (70, 72, 73, 69) 284; Gaurav Ghei (72, 66, 73, 74), Pappan (71, 70, 71, 73) and Feroz Ali (71, 71, 74, 69) 285; S. S. P. Chaurasia (70, 72, 74, 70) 286; Arjun Singh (72, 72, 73, 70) 287; Mohammad Islam (72, 69, 72, 75), Harinder Gupta (A) (70, 70, 76, 72), Naman Dawar (70, 74, 73, 71) 288; Shamim Khan (72, 72, 71, 74) 289; Sanjay Kumar (68, 72, 71, 80) 291; Mohammad Salim (70, 74, 74, 74) 292; Ranjit Singh (72, 71, 72, 72), Rahul Ganapathy (75, 68, 73, 77) and Uttam Singh Mundy (71, 71, 75, 76) 293.

Prominent Indians who missed the `cut' at 144 : Harmeet Kahlon (72, 73), Rahil Gangjee (74, 71) and Ashok Kumar (71, 74) 145; Ali Sher (73, 73), Mukesh Kumar (74, 72) and Vijay Kumar (71, 75) 146; Amandeep Johl (78, 69) and Rafiq Ali (76, 71) 147; Rohtas Singh (77, 76) and Indrajit Bhalotia (73, 80) 153.