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Popovic: the gift that just keeps giving

THERE wasn't so much as an inkling that this would happen. Not even the wildest suspicion. The closest thing to a premonition of Daniel Popovic's extraordinary week at the Australian PGA Championship was that he was clubbing his drives in the final round of last week's Open.

''Off the tee, I think he missed one tee shot (at the Australian Open). He's just fixed up his iron play a little bit. Simple,'' said a dejected yet sporting Rod Pampling, the unfortunate ying to Popovic's yang in a storybook final round in Coolum.

Popovic, a 26-year-old from Lower Templestowe, arrived on the Sunshine Coast as a 400-1 roughie who had barely heard of himself.

He left with the Kirkwood Cup, $225,000 in his back pocket, taking phone calls from the likes of Greg Norman and delivered one of the most emotional and memorable victories in the past 20 years of Australian golf. If this is indeed the final PGA at Coolum, it has left the most enduring of memories.

Against everyone's better judgment, Popovic led from start to finish, laying down the challenge with a first-round 64 before ducking the various kitchen sinks hurled in his direction from the cream of Australian golf, as well as British Open winner Darren Clarke.

Everyone waited for his inevitable tumble down the leaderboard. And waited. And waited. And waited. Popovic was the feel-good story that kept on giving.


When he holed out for par on the 18th, after Pampling had found the water in cavalier pursuit of a birdie, he dared look at the scoreboard for the first time all week. It showed him at 16 under - four shots clear of Anthony Brown and the experienced Pampling, who had birdied the first six holes on Sunday to head Popovic by the end of the front nine, only to find out it was he, not the bolter, who faltered on the run home.

''Unbelievable. Just unbelievable. There's no words to explain how good it sounds. 2013 is going to be completely different to what I had planned two weeks ago,'' said Popovic, who has cancelled his spot in next week's Q-school qualifying. ''I'm going to walk away thinking if I keep doing this, I'm going to get there.''

To say Popovic came from the clouds would be to vastly underplay the extent of his anonymity.

The case against Popovic winning at Coolum was so overwhelming it shouldn't even have gone to trial. He was a combined 38 over in his 12 previous tournaments this year, undercutting his decent cards with wild blowouts.

He was ranked 1251 in the world. He spent part of his early 20s spinning road signs and flipping pizzas as he tried to pay for his golfing dreams. He battled bulging discs and broken wrists.

And he had put his career on hold for his father Radi, who watched his son's victory unfold from Melbourne as he fights an incurable form of bone cancer that, along with a perilous fear of flight, kept him from being at Coolum.

Radi introduced his son to golf and he was Daniel's constant muse as he kept the field at bay in the PGA. Even when Pampling was sinking birdies like he was buttering toast, Popovic kept his head, conjuring remarkable self-assurance for a man with so little on which to draw.

''For him [Radi], it's going to be everything. He said he's so proud of me. So did my mum [Mila]. I cannot wait to give him a big bear hug … We're going to have a pretty good party when I get back,'' Popovic said.

''[I thought of him] all the time. That is the difference, because of my father. That is why I am so confident and do back myself and do push myself on the golf course now.''

Pampling threatened to change the ending. His six birdies prompted the inevitable cries of ''59!'' before he bogeyed the 16th, the 17th, then doubled the 18th.

''I'm over the moon,'' Radi Popovic said. ''We're just so excited, so happy, it's unbelievable. I was very anxious in the middle of the round. I still believed that he could do it.''

From day one, Popovic insisted he wasn't a one-day wonder and would be there at the business end of the tournament. Only his true believers put weight in the words.

Not only did he make good on his vow, he showed the kind of unshakeable confidence more readily associated with tour veterans. He even went on to say he felt ready to rumble with the best players in the world, assuming he can get a US tour card.

''I'm not far off where you need to be in the world,'' he said. ''My goal with golf is to win a major championship. And I don't feel I'm that far off.

''Mentally, I am there. I do feel that. There are a couple of things with my game that I do need to improve on - chipping and pitching is a clear factor - but I'm going to walk away from this week feeling I'm not too far off.''

Pampling hasn't won since the 2008 Australian Masters and said he was hopeful Popovic would get the speed wobbles once he fell behind.

But Pampling blinked. The pair were level at 15 under with two to play, Popovic being in the group behind. Pampling bogeyed 17, Popovic birdied. And 18 belonged to the victor.

The pair played the final round together at the Australian Open, but Pampling had little clue he was looking at the PGA victor.

''There is not a lot of experience with Danny. I guess he has been playing a while, but you couldn't look back in the form guide and say that he is good under the gun,'' he said,

''You certainly expected Danny to maybe fall back, but I certainly expected more other guys to be up there as well, so I was quite surprised that no one was catching us.''

Geoff Ogilvy finished tied for fourth on 11 under with Brad Kennedy. Peter Senior couldn't replicate his final-round heroics of the Australian Open, but his closing round of 77 was enough to secure him his fourth order of merit title and a start in next year's British Open Championship at Muirfield.