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Abu Dhabi Championship: Gary Stal beats Martin Kaymer to title

After a thrilling maiden triumph in the opening event of The European Tour’s annual Desert Swing, Motown fan Gary Stal has the golfing world at his feet, as he looks to build on the success of the past week at the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters.

The 22 year old Frenchman is a calm presence both on and off the course, a trait that no doubt stood him in good stead as he faced the Sunday pressure cooker in Abu Dhabi, and he will hope to exhibit more of the same at Doha Golf Club from Wednesday after the short trip east.

Still a little in awe of his achievement, Stal was quick to thank those people who have helped to get him where he is today, while also explaining the rollercoaster of emotions he experienced facing down two of the game’s great names – a certain World Number One, Rory McIlroy, and the reigning US Open Champion Martin Kaymer, who at one point on a thrilling final day had led by ten shots.

“It is unbelievable!” said the man who climbed to third in The Race to Dubai as a result of his win. “I just want to say thank you to everybody who has helped me, and I am very happy about this victory. I will change my schedule for the season slightly now, perhaps focus a little more on some of the bigger tournaments rather than having to play every week; but we will see.

“Early on Sunday I saw that Martin [Kaymer] was 23 under and I was only on 13, so I was ten shots behind and it is unbelievable, because I never thought I would be contending for the win at that point. Then I played very well and saw on the 12th hole that I was only two behind, so I said to myself that it might be possible and that I was good enough to do it.

“Three holes later I was leading by one, and when I saw that happen I was very excited, but it was very difficult to stay calm.”

The triumph has opened many a door to the former Challenge Tour graduate, who lives 30 kilometres east of Lyon in his native France, but he is yet to determine how his schedule will take shape in light of the opportunities his superb win have afforded him.

One highlight he did point out, however, was a maiden start in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, a tournament that will mark his professional debut in the USA.

He said: “It is still too soon to think about the rest of this season, but soon I will sit down and see what I will do. I am very excited to play in the bigger tournaments, for example the WGC-Bridgestone at Firestone Country Club, and I will be very happy to play in America as I have only played there as an amateur.

“For now though, I will play until the Madeira Islands Open – Portugal – BPI (March 19-22), and then I will return to France where I will share this moment with my friends, my girlfriend and my dad. I think we will have a big party.”

There would have been few in the world of golf that would not have been stunned by the drama that unfolded in the second tournament of the calendar year, but it was another example of the growing momentum behind French golf.

Since the start of the 2013 season, Grégory Bourdy, Victor Dubuisson, Raphaël Jacquelin, Alexander Levy (twice), Julien Quesne and now Stal have all won on The European Tour, while four of last season’s 15 Challenge Tour graduates also hailed from the Gallic nation.

Needless to say, it is this kind of global form from its players that has golf fans in France excited about 2018, when The Ryder Cup heads to European Tour Destination Le Golf National on the outskirts of Paris.

“There are a lot of young French guys on The European Tour,” said Stal. “My friends like Victor Dubuisson, Alexander Levy and Romain Wattel, I play with them and like their game, so I am very happy.

“It will be good for France to have The Ryder Cup in 2018 too, and I am happy it will be played on a good course. I think lots of French guys will obviously want to play that week.”

In the more immediate future, however, Stal is facing the enviable task of trying to become the first player to land back-to-back titles since Mr McIlroy achieved the feat in the US PGA Championship last year.

He said: “This week, it will be difficult to get ready to play, but I just have to focus on my job, treat it like I did starting out last week, and we will see. I am a very calm person, so I will try to focus and be like I always have been.

“I always wanted to win on The European Tour, but last weekend was just unbelievable!”

Credit: European Tour