Ben Leong held his nerve to win the SapuraKencana National Qualifier by two shots on Wednesday, earning a dream spot in the US$7 million CIMB Classic in October.
The 29-year-old Leong, who held an overnight five-shot lead, closed with a two-over-par 74 at the Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club where his three-day total of three-under-par 213 edged out a fighting Kenneth De Silva who signed off with a fine 68.
Nicholas Fung fired a 69 to finish third, a further stroke back, while last year’s champion Danny Chia settled for fourth place after a 73.
“It means a lot. It’s like a dream come true and dreams do come true. I’ve been unlucky the last couple of weeks (finishing second twice on the local circuit) and I’m glad I crossed the line this time. It’s a great win and I’m looking forward to playing in the CIMB Classic,” said Leong.
Leong, who holds one Asian Tour victory, didn’t have it easy despite his big lead, with Chia first making a charge early on and then De Silva chipping away at the lead with some wonderful golf.
The Sabahan said his hands shook with nerves creeping in coming down the stretch when De Silva pulled to within two of the lead.
“It’s never easy having a big lead. You start losing focus despite leading by five. A lead is never big enough. I’m happy I got it through. I just stayed patient and it worked out,” he said.
“I was focused on Danny as he was the closest to me at the start of the day and then he birdied a couple and the lead was down to three. He then had a rough start in our back nine which gave me back my five-shot lead and I didn’t really know what Kenneth was doing.There were some nerves for me. My hands were shaking, definitely, and my playing partners were actually laughing at me coming down the stretch! The CIMB Classic will be a whole new experience for me. It’s great to have made it into the event,” he added.
Leong’s victory, which earned him RM 22,000, was a timely boost as he had endured a torrid last few years following a back injury which laid him out of the Asian Tour for a long spell. He first broke into prominence by winning the 2008 Selangor Masters, beating Thai great Thongchai Jaidee in a head-to-head duel and was relieved that his win today meant that he can now face the world’s leading golfers again at the CIMB Classic, which is sanctioned by the PGA TOUR and Asian Tour.
“I had doubts for sure,” said Leong when asked if he thought his career was over in 2012 due to a disc prolapse.
“I would go to bed wishing that when I woke up the next morning, the pain would be gone. It was frustrating and it tested me to my limit. I stayed determined, stayed to my workout regime and stayed patient which was probably the secret. It worked out alright. For the past few years now, I will spend four hours on the golf course and one hour off it to work on my physical aspect. Before that, it was just seven or eight hours which was stressing my body and mind out. Ever since I’ve come back from my injury, I’ve told myself to stay disciplined and stay with my five- hour plan,” he said.
Kenneth, 24, was delighted to post his career best score at KLGCC but lamented a bogey and double bogey on 12 and 13 for denting his hopes of pushing Leong to the limit.
“I played really good golf. I told myself to try my best as anything can happen on this course. I got close to the lead but the 12th and 13th holes took away my chances. I missed birdie chances on 17 and 18 which was disappointing as I really wanted one more birdie to put some pressure on Ben,” said De Silva.
“We are delighted to see yet another successful SapuraKencana National Qualifier for the fourth year running and would like to congratulate Ben Leong who rose to the game to clinch the coveted spot at the CIMB Classic. We wish him all the best at the CIMB Classic 2015 and we look forward to him putting in a good performance and placing the country in the world map,” commented Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Shahril Shamsuddin, President and Group Chief Executive Officer, SapuraKencana Petroleum Berhad.
“We hope our local fans were enthralled by the exciting and fierce competition amongst Malaysia’s top golfers over the past three days. Having established itself as a key national tournament, we are pleased to record an increase of player participation which is a great testament to the credibility of the Qualifier. We remain committed to driving the development of golf as a sport in Malaysia and hope to spur more home-grown talents,” he added.
The CIMB Classic, to be held from October 29 to November 1, will be the third event of the 2015- 2016 FedExCup Season on the PGA TOUR. Offering full FedExCup points, the CIMB Classic will feature 78 players – 60 from the PGA TOUR, 10 from the Asian Tour and eight sponsor’s exemptions.
Out of the eight sponsor’s exemptions, CIMB Classic accords two spots for Malaysians. The second spot will be given to the highest ranked Malaysian golfer on the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) as at September 30. If the winner of the SapuraKencana National Qualifier is also the leading Malaysian in the OWGR, the second spot will automatically go to the next best-ranked Malaysian on the OWGR.
Leading final round scores
213: Ben Leong 71-68-74
215: Kenneth De Silva 75-72-68
216: Nicholas Fung 73-74-69
217: Danny Chia 71-73-73
219: R. Nachimuthu 71-77-71
220: Khor Kheng Hwai 77-70-73, S. Sivachandhran 74-73-73, Shaifubari Muda 76-71-73
221: C. M. Chong 76-71-74
222: Akhmal Tarmizee 77-71-74, Wilson Choo 72-75-75
223: Gavin Green 73-80-70, Mohd Azman Basharuddin 77-73-73