Greater Noida: Gaganjeet Bhullar reinforced his stature as the rising star of Indian golf by recording his best finish in a European Tour event but for the second year running, a South African triumphed at the Avantha Masters as Thomas Aiken's consistency and "conservative approach" steered him to the title on Sunday.
Bhullar's total of 20-under 268, after an eight-under 64 in the final round, left him sole second and three strokes behind overnight leader and India debutant Aiken.
Aiken returned a successive flawless card, a five-under 67 in the final round, to take home a whopping prize cheque of euro 300,000 in the euro 1.8 million event tri-sanctioned by the European Tour, the Asian Tour and the Professional Golf Tour of India.
"I was quite tense this week, I had worked on my game and corrected a few mistakes with my new coach. I was hitting straight but in the end, it seemed like a putting competition. I did not play safe on any of the holes because my caddie told me there was no point in playing safe," Bhullar said.
Liang Wen-Chong of China took the sole third spot, two shots behind Bhullar, after returning an eventful three-under 69 in the final round.
The highlight of Wen-chong's outing today was a spectacular ace on the par-three seventh hole, where his tee shot rolled in smoothly. But the former Indian Open champion, who was the joint leader after the second round, could not go ahead of Bhullar.
When the 24-year-old Indian stepped on the course today, he could not have imagined for a better start to the proceedings as he sank in a hat-trick of birdies from the first hole to the third. An eagle on the fifth hole raised hopes of an unlikely charge for the title from the Kapurthala-lad.
He was pulled back by a bogey on the seventh but Bhullar looked strong nonetheless being three-under at the turn. The back-nine also started with a bang for him as he gained a stroke on the 10th before striking consecutive birdies on the 14th and 15th followed by another on the 17th.
"But no one gives a damn about whether you finish second or 40th because everybody remembers only the winner," Bhullar said with a tinge of disappointment.
Among the positives he would be taking from the tournament are, world ranking points that would bring him back inside the top-100 and the confidence to consider himself a contender for European titles. "I can smell a lot of success this year. My course management has improved," he said.
Although brilliant, today's round was not enough to challenge Aiken, whose sheer perseverance fetched him the title as his previous cards this week read an impressive 67, 69 and the unforgettably sensational 62 yesterday.
Aiken, in fact, recorded the season's lowest 36-hole total and his two-day effort of 15-under 129 bettered the previous best by two strokes.
The 29-year-old, who took to golf because of the scenic beauty of courses, was rock steady in his approach, picking up five birdies in all, three on the back-nine. He could have added another stroke to his victory margin but for a missed eagle putt on the 16th hole which he eventually birdied.
"It was by no means a walk in the park I played conservatively and played the par-fours really well," said a relieved Aiken, admitting to being under pressure from Wen-chong who teed off alongside him this morning.
"I managed my game well and didn't make any mistakes. I just tried to play one shot at a time and not get too far ahead of myself. My gameplan was very good this week," added the golfer, for whom it was his second European Tour title after the 2011 Open de Espana.
He was also lavish in his praise for the country he was visiting for the first time in his life. " It has been a fantastic week. Indians are just fantastic, always smiling and quick to tell a joke. I would love to come back and see the Taj Mahal, which I could not this time," he said.
Meanwhile, among other Indians in fray, Himmat Rai saved his best for the last, returning a bogey-free seven-under 65 to sign off an impressive tied ninth at the event being held at the Greg-Norman designed Jaypee Greens Course.
With a total of 14-under 274, Himmat notched up his first top-10 finish of the season so far -- quite a confidence-booster given that he had missed the cut at last week's SAIL-SBI Open at the Delhi Golf Course.
Jeev Milkha Singh was, meanwhile, done in by back-nine woes, ending tied 23rd with a card of one-under 71, his worst of the week. The seasoned pro was going strong with a bogey-free front-nine, which was studded with four birdies, but things went haywire for him in the backward journey.
A double-bogey on the 10th was followed by another dropped stroke on the 11th. He only managed to par the remaining holes before signing off with a four-day total of 11-under 277.
A stroke adrift at tied 29th was Jyoti Randhawa, who returned a flawless two-under 70, along with Rahil Gangjee and Anirban Lahiri, both of whom carded identical 71s.
Further down the leaderboard, Rashid Khan came up with his best effort of the tournament -- a six-under 66 -- to end a creditable tied 34th. Rashid reeled off six birdies -- three in each nine.