KARACHI: A swarm of dragonflies had taken over the playoff hole after Matloob Ahmed and Mohammad Tariq had served a tantalising climax to the CNS Open Golf Championship here at the Karachi Golf Club (KGC) on Sunday.
Unlike Matloob, Tariq had never won a tournament in Karachi. There were several amongst the crowd backing the latter, willing him on to finally claim a title in the city. Dark clouds had gathered and the dragonflies made concentrating difficult as Tariq approached his birdie putt. If it went in, Matloob would have to match him. Tariq’s shot stopped just a foot before the cup. A chance missed.
Matloob’s putt for birdie landed even closer. Tariq breathed a sigh of relief. He had another chance. The duo would have to go all the way back to the tee and play for the title all over again. This time, though, there was more distraction than the dragonflies. The dark clouds that had gathered were poised to deliver rain. The wind began blowing.
Matloob and Tariq now not only had to beat the course but also fight the elements. It was a question of who would crack first. It was Tariq who did, leaving Matloob to emphatically seal a third CNS Open title, three years after his last triumph and 15 years since his first. This perhaps was the most special of them all; especially the manner in which it came.
Seemingly out of contention after the second round, he hauled himself to the top of leaderboard after tying the course record in a stunning third-round 62. In the final round, he had to come from behind again. Hamza Amin, who had started the day a stroke adrift of Matloob, was coasting after the front nine having opened up a two-shot lead over the overnight leader. Matloob showed his incredible powers of recovery again.
“It wasn’t a good start and my putting wasn’t that good,” Matloob told Dawn afterwards. “What changed the outlook for me was when I narrowly missed a birdie putt on the ninth. I immediately knew that my putting would be better on the back nine.”
It was, and birdies on the 11th, 13th and the 16th holes followed. By then, the wheels had come off Hamza’s challenge. Tariq, playing in the second leader flight, had emerged as the main challenger after finishing with a 69 for a 12-under 276.
Matloob, who eventually finished with a final-round 71, was 13-under approaching in the 17th hole. But going by how this edition of the CNS Open has gone, there just had to be one more twist in the tale. Matloob bogeyed to draw level with Tariq, setting up a nerve-wracking playoff at the end of a nerve-jangling final day on which several golfers were in the hunt.
“It was incredibly close,” Hamza told Dawn. “No one ran away with it really and it required two playoff holes to decide it which shows that everyone wanted to win it.”
Like Tariq, Hamza was seeking his first title in Karachi. And when Matloob bogeyed the third hole, it was game on. Hamza had birdied the third and by the time he birdied the fifth after setting himself up with a delightful approach shot, momentum seemed to be shifting.
Ahead of him, Shabbir Iqbal — chasing a record 12th triumph at the tournament — was making his case. After he birdied the sixth hole, Shabbir and Tariq, who had birdies on the first two holes, had moved to 11-under; ahead of Matloob and just behind Hamza.
But Shabbir’s challenge eventually petered out; his 71 only enough to give him fourth place at eight-under 280, a shot ahead of Mohammad Munir (70), Waheed Baloch (70) and Talib Hussain (75), who had started the day a stroke behind the lead.
Hamza’s chances were hit on the 15th hole, which he bogeyed to fall behind Matloob. And when Matloob gave him a chance to come back with a bogey on the 17th, Hamza three-putted that hole to eventually finish with a 72 and third-place overall at 10-under 278.
“I’m happy with my performance,” he said. “It’s my best score at the KGC but I’d say congratulations to Matloob who was a deserved winner.”
Matloob could’ve won it on the final hole. A fantastic approach shot had left him primed for a birdie. Tariq’s supporters could barely look when he set himself up for the championship shot. The ball seemed destined to go in but it didn’t. Matloob was bewildered. “I saw the cutting of the green was left to right and decided whether the shot would turn or not,” said Matloob.
“I hit from the left but the ball broke on the other side. After the shot I checked and the cutting was still from left to right so I couldn’t understand why it went to the left. It was strange.”
Strange indeed but it added to the unfolding drama at the KGC. It paved the way for a thrilling finish.
On the second playoff hole Tariq landed wide on the left with his tee shot and trying to play himself out of it, he landed close to the rough on the other side. Matloob’s tee had landed centrally but as the winds came, his approach shot was wayward and landed to the right of the green. Tariq needed another shot to get close to the green but Matloob, also in a difficult position, conjured up a stunning chip that landed right at the mouth of the cup.
It was done and dusted by then with Tariq needing a birdie from outside the putting green to take the battle to a third playoff hole. It was too much for him and as his shot rolled past the hole, Matloob broke in celebration. Arms in the air, on the shoulders of his supporters. And just as he looked up towards the sky, the heavens opened up.