ILONEN STARTS SOMETHING FINNISH

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Finnish golf doesn’t start and end with Mikko Ilonen says Matt Cooper after an amazing week for the European Tour star’s compatriots.

By Matt Cooper
When Mikko Ilonen became a double-winner on the European Tour last year he quickly recognised the potential his success had to promote golf in his home country.
“Although the sport is growing in Finland it is a slow process,” Ilonen explained. “Hopefully my win can encourage players back home.”
But after last weekend’s results you get the feeling that Ilonen has not just encouraged but passionately inspired his fellow Finns as they completed a double of one-two finishes which confirmed the quiet progress the nation’s golfers have been making in the wake of Ilonen’s breakthrough.
On the Challenge Tour Antti Ahokas claimed the Ecco Tour Championship in Copenhagen, finishing one shot ahead of countryman Roope Kakko.
Meanwhile, on the Ladies European Tour, Kakko’s girlfriend Minea Blomqvist capped a resurgent 2008 campaign with her first win for four years, edging out compatriot Ursula Wilstrom in the Finnair Masters.
For the left-handed Ahokas it was his second win of the 2008 season having clinched the Abierto de la Republica (the Argentine Open) in April, a maiden victory that was followed by second spot a week later at the Club Colombia Masters.
He is now in a strong position to graduate to the main tour, lying sixth in the rankings with the top twenty gaining full playing rights for the 2009 schedule – an impressive effort for a player who only turned professional in the summer of 2006 after winning the Irish Amateur Championship.
The latest win was not as straightforward as it could have been, but it did demonstrate that the Lappeenranta-based golfer has great fighting qualities.
Holding a two shot lead going into the back nine, he squandered the advantage and trailed Dutchman Wil Besseling by the same margin with just two holes to play.
When Besseling catastrophically four-putted the final green he offered the Finns a second chance and Ahokas was not to be denied, birdying the seventeenth and then holing a testing par putt on the final green for victory, moments after watching Kakko miss from the same range.
“When we went to the last I said to Roope that this is big for the Finnish people and it is what golf is all about so let’s enjoy it,” the winner said afterwards.
If Ahokas enjoyed the final result a little more than his playing partner, Kakko did have the consolation of learning that his fiancé Minea had completed victory in Helsinki.
Remarkably she and Wilstrom had conspired to fight out an even more dramatic final hole head-to-head than the boys managed.
Having both birdied 17, Blomqvist had a one-shot cushion and was just ten feet from the hole after an excellent approach when Wilstrom holed from 30-feet to tie the lead.
“When she made the putt I didn’t notice at all,” Blomqvist said. “I was just thinking, I’m going to make my own.” Which she promptly did.
Responding to the news from Copenhagen, Blomqvist said, “We’re going to have a big party. Everyone is welcome!”
Mikko Ilonen might not have won himself this year – ironically he’s struggled to rediscover his form of 2007 – but it is just possible that there will have been a glass raised to him before the night was over.

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