“HOME COURSE HERO COMES FULL CIRCLE TO WIN JOHNSTON MEIER INSURANCE VANCOUVER OPEN”
For Immediate Release – Vancouver, BC (Aug.22, 2022)
20-YEAR OLD ILIRIAN ZALLI BIRDIES FINAL FOUR HOLES FOR DRAMATIC COMEBACK WIN
This Sunday at Fraserview Golf Course, Twenty-year old Ilirian Zalli showed the heart of a lion and threw down a comeback that would rival any TOP 5 come from behind wins on the PGA TOUR.
What started out as a Championship that could have been any one of 14 players within 5 shots of the lead (and still a dozen players within 4 shots thru 9), soon became a race between four players including 20-year old home-course favorite Ilirian Zalli, Korn Ferry Tour player Stu MacDonald, American George Markham (Phoenix) and PGA Tour Latin America player Ziggy Nathu (Richmond). Each player would take their turn on the final 9 holes inching closer to the tournament record of 15-under par, set by last year’s Van Open Champion Steven Lecuyer.
First it was Markham who made his move in the penultimate group, birdying 11, 12 and 15 to reach -14 for the tournament and set the pace. But he was getting some heat from local Richmond player Ziggy Nathu, who birdied 14 and 15 to reach -13, and who started breathing down the leaders’ necks.
With both playing partners David Hansen (2nd last group) and Cory Renfrew (final group) struggling on the front nine, the focus turned on the final group pairing of Zalli and MacDonald to see who would rise to the top on the final 9 holes of play to challenge Nathu and Markham. And through the first half of the back nine it appeared MacDonald’s experience on the Korn Ferry the past 2 seasons was going to prove the difference. After pars on 10 and 11, he picked up some momentum and birdied holes 12,13 and 15 to be the first to reach 15-under par and taking the lead with just 3 holes to play.
But this story was far from over, and was it about to write itself into one of the craziest comebacks in Vancouver Open history.
After making an unlikely bogey on the 9th hole from wedge distance, Zalli trailed MacDonald by just one at the turn. But when he failed to birdie the 12th and MacDonald birdying the 14th, he found himself in quite the predicament, now 3 down and only 4 holes to play. This against a player who had come very close to securing his PGA TOUR card in 2021. The odds of this turning in Zalli’s favor given his opponent were highly unlikely, especially when MacDonald poured in another birdie on 14 to guarantee he would hold a minimum of a 3-shot lead with 3 to go. So Zalli’s birdie attempt on 14 was a MUST MAKE. And he did just that! He managed to keep within 3 with just 3 to play.
With the confidence of a top PGA TOUR player , Zalli took dead aim at the tucked back left pin on the par 3, 16th hole and it was a stroke of genius. He left himself with as perfect leave below the hole, and then just NAILED his 10 footer for birdie. MacDonald had to make a clutch 5 footer for his par, but his 3-shot cushion was now just 2 with 2 to play.
The crowd could sense now there was a slim possibility of a playoff with 2 holes to play, and with the 18th hole a pivotal par 5 hole where the Vancouver Open has been decided on many occasions the past 16 years.
Fast forward to the group ahead, and neither Nathu or Markham could make a move on 16 and 17, so they were 2 shots and 1 shot back respectively heading into the 18th. And as valiant an effort as both players made, neither of them could find the elusive eagle (Nathu) or birdie (Markham) required to reach the magic score of -15 at the time. Nathu would finish in 4th alone at -13 and collect a cheque for $2,800 and when Phoenix native Markham’s 5 footer for birdie missed on the last, he would come one shot shy and finish 3rd solo for a $3,300 cheque. Some exceptional golf from both players!
Now back on the 17th, both MacDonald and Zalli had launched perfect drives down the difficult 17th fairway, which is imperative with the shape and slope of the 17th green. In particular with the back right pin position on Sunday. MacDonald was first to play, and he did exactly what he needed to do – hit the center left portion of the green and force Zalli to hit it close for his birdie, or make a lengthy putt from a less risky play to the green.
Zalli stepped up and hit a beautiful iron shot, around 30 feet from the pin and just inside MacDonald’s line. Both players now faced extremely fast putts down the slope to the back right pin location. MacDonald first away, he carefully stroked his blade back and through and lagged his putt within tap-in distance for his par. Now all the pressure weighed on Zalli as he was sure to need this putt to drop, or he would need an eagle 3 on the last, which still may not be good enough if MacDonald made birdie himself.
With the eyes of everyone staring at him, Zalli rolled his 30 foot slider calmly down the slope, slowly, edging close to the hole, and DRAINED IT. AND THE CROWD ERUPTED!!
WHAT A PUTT!!!
If there was any doubt before who the crowd was cheering for before that hole-out, it was vividly apparent now. They wanted their local boy to take this Championship and they weren’t hiding it.
And so it came down to the closing hole, which is one of THE BEST closing par 5 holes in our country. The 18th hole at Fraserview is the perfect length of a par 5 to tease a player into going for the green. Which happens to force a player to hit a long-ish iron over a 50-yard gulch, with penalty areas all around.
This is the same hole that PGA TOUR winner Adam Hadwin ripped a drive and a 5-iron into in 2011. Where he birdied the final hole to force a playoff, and eventually go on to win a sudden death against former Canadian Tour player Brad Clapp.
SIDE NOTE – Take a peak at the 2011 Van Open Youtube video that shows Hadwin’s eagle try and playoff win, and you’ll see a 9-year old boy (Ilirian Zalli) in the crowd w/ the orange golf shirt!
So the question is, could the 20-year old Zalli create a full-circle moment some 11 years later heading down the 18th hole at his home course?
With the precision of a marksman, Zalli took dead aim off the tee at 18, and threaded the fairway like he has likely done a few hundred times over the years. He was some 200 yards out and within striking distance of the green.
With a one shot lead, MacDonald made the decision to lay up and force Zalli’s hand to make birdie, and hit a wedge in for his 3rd and guarantee par, and also give himself a decent shot at birdie. But he was certainly not throwing this Championship away by going for the green when he had the upper hand.
Zalli was now staring at possibly the most important shot of his young Professional Career. A 200 yard shot over a 50 yard gully and no room for error. He once again took dead aim, and hit a beautiful iron shot that soared just left of the flag, took one hop and settled just off the green in the intermediate rough just 30 feet away. Not a gimme up and down, but certainly do-able.
MacDonald then took his turn from 120 yards out and hit a beautiful shot that hopped up and just left of the hole some 12 feet away. He was in for a guaranteed par, and quite possibly a birdie. Which meant Zalli would need a birdie to have any chance at a playoff.
Both players were greeted at the 18th green with a very warm reception to recognize their exceptional play over the first 71 holes. The gallery settled in to see what they hoped would be a 4th consecutive birdie, or even better a hole-out for eagle from their home town hero. While it didn’t hit the hole, Zalli’s chip ran just past the cup and he would have just 2 1/2 feet for his almost certain birdie.
Now it was back to MacDonald and his opportunity to close this thing out with a make from 12-feet. His putt rolled cross the slope of the green, and tracked right at the cup, but fell out of steam and died just low and short. Tap in for par, and now at -15 with just one stroke in regulation to decide his fate. With a miss from Zalli it was a win. With a make, and it was another ride back down 18 for a sudden death playoff.
Zalli calmly addressed his ball, and confidently stroked his 3-footer in the heart for his 4th straight birdie and put this year’s Vancouver Open into extra holes.
THE CROWD WENT INSANE!! CLICK HERE FOR TWITTER VIDEO
After signing their cards, and making it official, both players were escorted back down the fairway to play the 18th hole at least one more time. Zalli drew the honors, and he would just nail another perfectly executed draw down the middle of the fairway. Now it was MacDonald’s turn. His drive veered down the left side of the treeline, and instead of his customary fade back to the fairway, it turned left and dove into the bush. He would have to re-tee as this was not marked penalty area. His second drive was on almost the same exact line as the first, and unless they could find either of these balls, it was essentially game over and Zalli’s championship to win. He would unfortunately not find either of his first 2 balls, and could at best have a putt for triple bogey by the time his ball reached the green.
Zalli took his time, and hit a perfect middle iron for his layup to 120 yards out, and a perfect wedge shot just 10 feet under the cup. He could 4-putt and still win the trophy. The crowd watched closely, and although they knew a 2-putt was plenty good enough, they still hoped Zalli would seal the day off with his 5th straight birdie. It did not drop, but he would take his time and tap in for the par, and with the local crowd roaring in the background, raise both arms in jubilant fashion having taken home the trophy that Adam Hadwin did some 11 years ago on the very same green!!
With his exceptional play came the spoils for Zalli. A winner’s cheque for $10,000, and an exemption to play in next week’s PGA TOUR Canada event, the GolfBC Championship at Gallagher’s Canyon (Kelowna) for being the top Professional on the Srixon sponsored VGT Order of Merit at the end of the Vancouver Open.
MacDonald would take home a runner-up cheque for $5,000, and some great experiences through the week, having won the Maui Jim Charity Pro-Am on Wednesday shooting 62 (-10) in only his 2nd time playing Fraserview. Not the storybook ending he would have liked, but he played some exceptional golf all week, and will no doubt take a lot of confidence as he heads down south this fall to regain his status on the Korn Ferry Tour.
The 2022 Vancouver Open was a record turn-out for the 2nd consecutive year, with a full field of 312 players, both Amateur and Professional, and another 170 players that took part in Wednesday’s Charity Pro-Am.
We would like to thank all 312 Championship Golfers and all 170 Pro-Am golfers for taking part in this year’s Vancouver Open Championship! There were some amazing scores from all of our Divisional Champions, and for that you deserve to be recognized. A full summary of the tournament results is attached, including the Charity Pro-Am results and prize draw winners. (skins results will be emailed out tomorrow – thanks for your patience).
Please help me congratulate all of our 54-Hole Divisional Winners as follows below. You are all 2022 Vancouver Open Champions!!
OVERALL CHAMPION: Ilirian Zalli (-15)
RUNNER-UP: Stuart MacDonald (-15)
WOMEN’S CHAMPION: Christine Wong (-1) – Won for second straight year!
$1,000 cheque Sponsored by Maui Jim Canada
2022 Vancouver Open Overall Women’s Champion: Christine Wong
MEN’S AMATEUR CHAMPION: Mike Aizawa (-3)
WOMEN’S AMATEUR CHAMPION: Jessica Ng (+1) – Won for second straight year!
Women’s Division Prizing Sponsored by Maui Jim
SENIOR CHAMPION: Mike Seeley (+11)
Senior Division Prizing Sponsored by Nickel Heating & Ventilation
OVERALL NET CHAMPION: Ed Fitch (-3)
DIVISION 1 GROSS CHAMPION: Kenny Sperling (+20)
DIVISION 2 GROSS CHAMPION: Geoff Pearson (+19)
DIVISION 3 GROSS CHAMPION: Ray Lin (+36)
A few final shout-outs must be made. First off, to the Vancouver Parks Board and City of Vancouver for agreeing to host this year’s Championship, and sign a partnership for a total of 3 years to host the Vancouver Open thru 2024. You have been an unbelievable partner in golf and we are so thankful to host the Vancouver Open at your 3 beautiful public golf courses. The event could not have asked for a more fitting Champion with local Fraserview players Ilirian Zalli (Overall) and Mike Seeley (Senior) taking home their titles!
Hats off to all three superintendents, and their fearless leader as you all need to be recognized for setting up the courses to offer championship conditions for the week:
Supervisor of all 3 Vancouver Parks Golf Courses: Dennis Luick
- McCleery Golf Course Superintendent: John Cartlidge
- Langara Golf Course Superintendent: Peter Rodrigues
- Fraserview Golf Course Superintendent: Mike Swain
A further round of applause to the some 100 volunteers and a dedicated and passionate group of VGT Team Members who worked around the clock to make this year’s Championship a huge success! I saw alot of tired faces at the end of the week, but I also saw a few hundred golfers who benefitted greatly from playing in this year’s Championship. THANK-YOU one hundred time for allowing us to stage one of the greatest local Championships for the players in our region!
A final thank-you to our Title Sponsor Johnston Meier Insurance Group, and our cast of Major and supporting sponsors of the tournament and of the Vancouver Golf Tour. Your support is greatly appreciated, and allows us to continue to strive to put on first class competitions for local golfers so they may gain the confidence and experience to further their golf careers beyond the local scene. We have witnessed a number of Vancouver Open players who have gone on to become household names and Champions on PGA Tour Canada, the Korn Ferry Tour and the PGA Tour. And we are excited about the promising young talent we witnessed at this year’s Championship and look forward to seeing them take the next steps in their career to becoming world class players on major tours like Adam Hadwin, Nick Taylor and Adam Svensson have done before them.
On that note, thank-you all for competing in the 2022 Johnston Meier Insurance Vancouver Open. We look forward to seeing you back in the field in 2023!
Commissioner, Vancouver Golf Tour