Known as “Mr Golf” in his native Finland, Mikko Ilonen heads to Sun City on the back of arguably his best year on tour since turning professional in 2001.
After winning the prestigious Amateur Championship in 2000 at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Ilonen joined the professional ranks in 2001 and immediately made an impact with his finish of tied ninth in the Open Championship that year.
He secured his European Tour card and was making steady progress until the 2005 season. Plagued by the “yips” in his putting, Ilonen lost his playing privileges on the Tour. But he looks back on it as a defining moment in his career.
“That season was very, very important to me. The following winter I had a lot to do. I had to build a better mindset and get answers to the problems with my putter – my putting was a total mess.”
It took a return to the scene of his greatest amateur triumph to revive his game. After qualifying for the 2006 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, Ilonen went on to finish tied 16th. A week later he finished tied 15th in the Deutsche Bank Players Championship of Europe, and his confidence was back.
He made his return to the European Tour, and in 2007 broke through with his maiden victory in the Indonesia Open, making him the first Finnish golfer to win on the European Tour. And he added a victory in the Scandinavian Masters that same year.
During a few lean years thereafter, Ilonen said, “I believe that my best years as a golfer are still to come”.
He was right, with another win coming in the 2013 Nordea Masters, and then his two wins this year in the Volvo World Match Play Championship and the Irish Open.
The Match Play triumph was easily the biggest victory of Ilonen’s career as he defeated Graeme McDowell and Henrik Stenson en route to the title. Ilonen also added a finish of tied seventh in the PGA Championship this year.
But it was his Match Play victory that brought the biggest sense of accomplishment to Ilonen.
“It’s been a goal of mine to be able to get a schedule where you can pick and choose wherever you want to play. I can do that now so it’s a good situation. I can play the bigger tournaments. I’ve been striving for that for the last couple of years.”
And it also allowed him to reflect upon some of the darkest years of his life when he struggled with his putting.
“At the end of 2005, the beginning of 2006, I made a couple of decisions concerning my putting, and from there I’ve turned the page and never really looked back. I’ve had my problems with the putter and I never wish anyone to experience the problems I had. Anyone who has been there, you know how bad they are.”
Ilonen says he made the decision to change his putting grip, and jokes that his left hand is so useless in his new grip that he may as well cut if off.
“It’s a reverse interlock with the left hand going into the middle of the right hand. It’s been helping me a lot. I haven’t seen anyone else using it. I found it completely by accident. I’m trying to eliminate my left hand completely. My left hand is no good. I would cut it off if I could.”
Ilonen joked after his Match Play triumph that people would look at a trophy containing the biggest names in golf on it, and say, “What is Mikko Ilonen doing there on the trophy?”
But his self-deprecating humour doesn’t overshadow Ilonen’s belief in his abilities. “I believe in myself. If I play good I can beat anyone.”