By Tony Jimenez
(Reuters) - Former world number two Sergio Garcia is hoping his Qatar Masters victory is an encouraging sign of good things to come for the Spaniard this season.
The Ryder Cup stalwart picked up the 11th European Tour win of his career, and his 26th worldwide, by beating Finland's Mikko Ilonen at the third hole of a sudden-death playoff in Doha on Saturday.
Garcia is one of the finest golfers never to have won a major championship and his eye-catching performance in the Middle East will tempt a lot of punters to back him for the U.S. Masters at Augusta in April.
"I hope this is the start of an amazing year," he told the tournament's official website (www.qatar-masters.com) after lifting the grand Mother of Pearl Trophy.
"Last year I had a lot of close calls, starting here, so I'm very excited to be able to get my hands on this trophy - this beautiful and heavy trophy.
"It's great to set up my year a little bit, to win again on the European Tour," said Garcia who last triumphed on the circuit when he captured the Andalucia Masters title in October 2011.
It was the eighth straight year the 34-year-old had competed in Qatar and victory over Ilonen made amends for his near-miss 12 months earlier when he was edged out by Briton Chris Wood's last-hole eagle.
"I'm thrilled to finally be able to win here," said Garcia who ended the regulation 72 holes alongside the Finn on 16-under-par 272.
"I've been close several times so it feels great to finally get over the finish line and go home with the trophy.
"I've been coming here for eight straight years so the crowd are used to seeing me which is nice. That always makes you feel comfortable," added world number 11 Garcia who has racked up a total of seven top-10 finishes in Doha.
"The crowd really made me feel that and hopefully they felt the same way. It was an exciting finish and you could see the crowd also got excited," he said after edging past Ilonen at the 18th with his third birdie four at the playoff hole.
Ilonen, who was aiming for his fourth tour win, said he lost to the better man.
"I played good golf this week so I can't be too disappointed," said the 34-year-old Finn.
"I gave it my best shot but Sergio was a bit better this time. There's no shame in losing to a great player like him."
The final leg of the tour's three-week Desert Swing, which kicked off with Spaniard Pablo Larrazabal's victory in Abu Dhabi, will be at the Dubai Desert Classic that starts on Thursday.
Among the competitors in Dubai are world number one Tiger Woods, third-ranked Henrik Stenson and number seven Rory McIlroy.
(Editing by Ken Ferris)