Rachel Kirkwood, a former javelin-throwing champion, only came to play in the £100,000 Biarritz Ladies Classic to try and secure her EvianTour card for next year.
But after draining a 25-foot birdie putt to defeat Spaniard Marina Arruti at the first playoff hole, the 26-year-old from Burton-on-Trent left with a £15,000 winners cheque and a three-year Tour exemption.
Rounds of 70, 65 and a final day three under par 67 were enough for Kirkwood to post the clubhouse lead on eight under par until Arruti, joint leader at the start of the final round, returned a two under 68 to force a shoot-out.
Sophie Giquel, one of France’s leading amateurs, picked up third spot, carding four birdies in the final five holes for her 67 to move to seven under par, one shot clear of compatriot Marine Monnet from Paris who also had a 67.
Five players tied for fifth on four under par - England’s Nicola Moult, Germany’s Elisabeth Esterl, Australian Lorraine Lambert and the Spanish duo of Ana Belen Sanchez and Ana Larraneta.
Kirkwood began the final round steadily, reaching the turn in level par 35. An eight iron to three feet at the par three 12th moved her into contention and with a 20-foot putt at the par-5 15th, she closed one behind Arruti, who birdied the tenth and 12th.
And with a low spinning pitch to six inches for birdie at the 16th, Kirkwood shared the lead with the Spaniard. Despite a blocked 3-iron at the par-3 17th, the Staffordshire-based player rolled in a nervy six foot for par.
On the return visit to the 18th in the playoff, Kirkwood fired a 9-iron to 25 feet while Arruti hit her approach ten feet closer. But Kirkwood, who had mum Barbara as her caddie, showed the resilience she has been missing all year and rattled the putt home for the win.
“I only came here with one thing on my mind, to get my card for next year, it’s been a shocking season, and it’s about time I did something," said Kirkwood, who's previous best finished was a tie for 59th in Ireland.
If she had missed her card, Kirkwood would have considered quitting the Tour but after some technical lessons from New Zealand’s Gina Scott, she re-discovered her form.
“I swore I’d never go back to Q-school and mum told me not go on about joining the police force. She was a great help on the bag."
Sweden’s Nina Karlsson birdied the last two holes to regain her playing rights for 2002. Second round co-leader Jehanne Jail from France also kept her card, rising from 106th to 85th with her tie for tenth.
Norwegian Suzann Pettersen, the French Open winner, wrapped up the Bill Johnson Rookie of the year title, finishing second on the order of merit, one in front of Karine Icher from France, who won the German Open and Mexx Sport Open with Spain’s Paula Marti, winner at the Ladies British Masters and Italian Open, finishing sixth.
Former winners of the award including Dale Reid, Laura Davies, Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb.
Raquel Carriedo became the first Spaniard since Seve Ballesteros in 1991 to win a European order of merit title.