While many in European golf have been thrilled by the progress of Nicolai Højgaard in recent seasons, there have been others who remained determinedly underwhelmed by the 22-year-old from Denmark. Critics cited a lack of success against elite fields, the fact that his twin brother, Rasmus, was leading the family DP World Tour win count, 4-2, and/or the mere half point from three matches that Nicolai scored in his Ryder Cup debut in Rome.
Victory in last week’s DP World Tour Championship, confirmed with a sensational final round of 8-under-par 64, should end all doubts, however. This was the performance of a prince, one which reminded us that there is nothing rotten about the state of Danish golf.
That much was evident in the immediate aftermath of triumph in the guise of compatriots past and present.
As the twins waited to see whether Nicolai’s 21-under total of 267 was sufficient for victory, Thorbjørn Olesen entered the scorer’s hut to offer encouragement; Jeff Winther did the same while signing his own card; and there was an embrace from Thomas Bjørn when the win was confirmed. Between a stalling round three and the barnstorming final lap, coach Søren Hansen had refined a briefly errant swing for Højgaard.
The result was also on-trend. It maintained the trend at Jumeirah Golf Estates’ Earth Course in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to reward long and elite-level drivers of the ball. Højgaard finished fourth there in his only previous start, two years ago, and he is the 14th of 15 winners there who has played in the Ryder Cup.
"If I look back on the season, the only thing missing was a win, so to get it this week, against this field, is unbelievable. It’s probably the best golf I’ve played, and this is the strongest field of my three wins.”
If all that makes the victory appear inevitable, then it seemed anything but on Saturday evening after Højgaard had started the third round with a two-shot lead yet ended it three back in a share of fifth.
On Sunday, his endeavours on the range alongside Hansen in the desert twilight bore fruit in spectacular style.
Four birdies in the first 10 holes had him tied at the top of the leaderboard with Ryder Cup teammates Tommy Fleetwood and Viktor Hovland before his own error at 12 and a par breaker for the Englishman saw him slip two back.
His response was remarkable.
His approach to the par-3 13th finished 8½ feet from the hole, and it would be the longest birdie opportunity he would gift himself between that green and the end of the round.
He drained the first five of them, on Nos. 13-17, to race clear of the challengers before missing the final chance from inside 4 feet to set up a nervous wait in front of the TV screens.
Hovland, Fleetwood and Matt Wallace all needed to make an eagle-3 at the last to force extra holes, but visits to water for Hovland and Wallace and to wood chippings beneath the trees for Fleetwood left them two shots shy Højgaard.
Wallace had enjoyed a sparkling Saturday when he had equalled the DP World Tour record of nine consecutive birdies – all of them in a back nine of 27 – to complete a 12-under 60. It’s a round of which he can be mightily proud but ranks only as unofficial due to preferred lies being in operation following exceptionally heavy rain on Thursday night.
Like Fleetwood, it was Wallace’s second tournament runner-up finish. Three-time winner Jon Rahm shared fifth. That was the quality of golfers – and golfers suited to the test – that Højgaard had left in his wake with his back-nine burst of birdies.
“I can’t believe what’s just happened,” he said afterward. “I was just so focused on the job. We were talking about it out there. Don’t worry about what everybody else is doing. We knew there are a lot of birdies on this golf course, but you have to hit the shots; you have to hole the putts.
“Then to have a putt to actually close it out and it slips by. It was quite a tough moment for me, actually, wondering if I just let it slip away?”
He hadn’t, and he was in no doubt about the significance of the result.
“It means a lot. It’s the sweetest win. There’s been so much hard work in the last couple years. If I look back on the season, the only thing missing was a win, so to get it this week, against this field, is unbelievable. It’s probably the best golf I’ve played, and this is the strongest field of my three wins.”
He paused to compose himself ahead of adding: “This one is for the family and everything they have put in over the years.”
Højgaard is projected to end the week inside the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking. If he were to remain there for the rest of the year, he would earn starts in 2024’s elite events, but he insisted that he won’t be chasing that mark.
“I’m done for the year,” he said. “If I play good golf, stuff like that will take care of itself. At the moment, I’m just very happy with this week.”
It was not all good news for the twins. There were PGA Tour cards up for grabs for the leading 10 players in the DP World Tour rankings not already exempt stateside.
Rasmus finished the tournament in a tie for 11th and consequently also missed out on the “other” top 10 by just one spot, but it was only confirmed after France’s Matthieu Pavon made birdie at each of the last four holes to claim a share of fifth, with Rahm and Thriston Lawrence, and with it pinch a PGA Tour card of his own.
“A crazy scenario,” Nicolai said afterwards. “I feel sorry for Ras, but he’s going to bounce back. He always does.”
The final prize – winner of the Race to Dubai rankings – had been decided before anyone teed it up on Thursday. Rory McIlroy was in an impregnable position and playing with a new driver. He also revealed during the tournament that he had resigned from the PGA Tour’s Policy Board. Maybe all three factors contributed to his tie for 22nd – his worst tournament finish in 13 visits.
He was determined to take the positives from the year, however.
“I think it shows my consistency year-to-year,” he said. “I think over the last  years, I’ve won eight season-long titles in America and here. Overall, another really solid year. Stroke average has been great [68.78 on PGA Tour to rank second, 68.88 on DP World Tour to rank first], and it’s just about trying to be a little more clinical when I have chances to win.”