KARACHI: When the leader flight teed off in the final round of the Rashid D. Habib Memorial National Professional Golf Championship a minute to nine on Sunday, there was burning expectation for a title fight that would go down to the wire. In a compelling climax on another blustery day at the Karachi Golf Course, it went down to the very last hole, the very last putt and ended with Waheed Baloch successfully defending his title.

When Waheed parred the 18th to end on three-under 69, he ensured a victory by the narrowest of margins; ending a stroke ahead of closest challenger Mohammad Shehzad (70). A remarkable return on the 14th hole had seen Shehzad, who was part of the leader flight alongside Waheed and overnight leader Mohammad Zubair, move within a shot of the lead.

A bogey by Waheed had seen Shehzad take full advantage with a birdie on the par-five hole to set up a grandstand finish. Zubair, who had a two-shot lead at the start of the round, was already out of contention by then and so it was a battle between Waheed and Shehzad over the last four holes. They matched each other with Waheed bagging the crown with an overall 11-under 278.

Zubair (80) would finish nine strokes behind but it was Pakistan number one Shabbir Iqbal in the second leader flight who had made it a three-horse race. When he birdied the final hole to return with a bogey-free 68, he needed Waheed to slip. Waheed held his nerve and Shabbir, on the back of a successful title defence at the CAS Open last week that gave him his 200th career title, finished in third at 279.

Shabbir’s long-time rivals Matloob Ahmed and Mohammad Munir finished fourth and fifth respectively; Matloob’s 71 seeing him finish at 282 with Munir a shot behind despite firing eight birdies in the round-best of 66. Ansar Mehmood (69) ended in sixth, a shot further back while Hamza Amin and Mohammad Naeem matched each other with 68 to end tied at 285.

All eyes, though, were on the leader flight and they delivered from the off. Shehzad made a fast start, reeling off birdies on the opening two holes before Waheed responded with one of his own on the fourth. Shehzad, though, let his advantage slip with a double bogey on the sixth and although both him and Waheed birdied the seventh, it was on the eighth when the holder stamped his authority.

A birdie for Waheed and a bogey for Shehzad meant the front nine had ended with Waheed three clear of Shehzad.

Waheed would start the back nine in the same vein, firing a birdie on the 10th before Shehzad responded with birdies on the 12th and 14th. Waheed’s bogey seemed to have opened the door for him but that was as good as it got for him. As far as Shabbir was concerned, he didn’t err on any hole having started five off the lead but he didn’t move into a definitive lead at any point during the final round.

Published in Dawn, January 23th, 2023

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