Golf remains darK BLUE
the 133rd mAtch
Formby Golf CLUB
24tH-26TH MARCH 2022
Formby is the only regular stop on the Varsity Match roster in the North-West where it returned, for the eighth time, for the 133rd match.
England’s Golf Coast boasts a smorgasbord of world class championship golf links. As a visitor to the region, one hesitates to characterise or rank them, and indeed what’s the point? Each is unique and Formby has its own golfing vibe and culture with a rich history in Amateur golf.
The palatial snooker room (two tables, honours boards as copious and ancient as the golfers’, one can imagine smoke filled nights) and a full-size hippo are but two features of a wonderful club with its own identity.
The golf course has scale, seclusion, drama – a secret land of dunes and pines out of Narnia – and some of the finest links turf imaginable. Tees high with chutes through the trees. Spectacular undulating fairways dramatically framed in cathedrals of pines.
The links cover a vast area with the 18-hole Formby Ladies course in the middle. Walking out in a north-westerly direction to reach holes 7-10 one is tempted to cross the Ladies’ course. Don’t! This is verboten (although if you are lucky enough to escape detection you will find stunning architecture on Formby Ladies, small greens perched atop dunes, fairways woven into the pine woodlands.)
One never sees the sea from the links but the ancient dunes over which the course undulates reminds us that the sea is not far away and has probably been here before.
“The finest beaches in Lancashire” one is told. “They’re just over there” with a point of the finger. “I must go and see them” one thinks, but there is too much to see on the course and too little time to take the five-minute diversion. Next time.
The course has variety and changes direction often without losing its anti-clockwise momentum. The routing is a bit like the board game “Operation”.
The Divots beat the Stymies on Wednesday at Southport & Ainsdale by 9-6. The standard of golf was high, and the students loved the golf course.
One of the final matches on the course had an exciting finish when June-Ho Chung holed his second with a nine iron on 16 to win the match and mathematically secure the win for the Divots.
Earlier in the day, Stymie Ian King birdied 18 to win 1up. When was the last time any Stymie, Divot or even Blue birdied the last to win?
The Oxford Ladies were too strong for the Cambridge Ladies and won 7-2, albeit Cambridge’s No 1 player won her singles match in exciting fashion on the 36th.
Oxford prevailed in the Dinner Match 2 1⁄2 to 1⁄2. A nervy foursomes win in the morning set the Dark Blue pairing of Jack Palmer and Arthur Thomson on their way and the experience of the three-time Divots veterans showed over their fresher Cambridge counterparts of Henry Weston and James Galkowski.
Both singles matches were exceedingly close, with terrific golf on show. In the top match, Palmer prevailed over Weston, both striking the ball excellently, the putts dropping for Oxford that didn't for Cambridge. With the result decided, Thomson and Galkowski shook hands on the last for a gentlemanly half.
If the quality of the Dinner Match was anything to go by, we were in for a spectacle on Friday and Saturday.
The teams of 2022 were closely matched, and the result was in the balance for most of the two days. Oxford had three returning Blues to Cambridge’s five. Oxford’s team included the recently crowned winner of the President’s Putter, Josh Fallows, a local lad who built sandcastles as a child on Formby beach.
Firm and dry with the greens double cut and rolled, the course was challenging. Even from 130 yards it was hard to hold the greens and harder still to lay the ball dead with the first putt particularly in the Foursomes with tricky pin positions throughout.
CUGC edged the foursomes by 3-2 in an action-packed day which saw Oxford do well to keep a potential victory in sight against a Cambridge side who were fast out of the blocks.
Oxford fielded a strong pair off top, Josh Fallows and Kevin O’Donnell, whose convincing victory was testament to their formidable foursomes partnership forged over the course of the season.
However, strong Cambridge performances in matches 2, 3 and 4 led to victories for the Light Blues, putting them in a very favourable position. The result in the anchor match looked to be a pivotal one to influence the mood in the Oxford camp going into the final day.
Cambridge had packed experience at the bottom with James Balgarnie and Scott Jeen, four Varsity Matches between them, against the north-west partnership of Niall Curwen and Tom Hadfield, both representing Oxford for the first time. With only a slender 1 up lead at lunch, Oxford first hung on and ultimately rode through to win 3&2, the closest of the day. With hindsight this was a point that Cambridge could not afford to lose. Despite a Cambridge lead going into the singles, there was an undeniable air of excitement in the Dark Blue house following the crucial victory in the final game.
At the 1987 Varsity Match, the Saturday dawned with a dusting of snow across the links. Play commenced late and the morning round was cut to 12 holes. If the 2022 match had stopped after 30 holes the result may have been different…
In the customary position off top, the captains were playing each other for the first time in their university careers. This was a change from recent history where the captains had been drawn together numerous times before their encounter. So, there was little form to go on.
Babar Haq's best efforts couldn't overcome CUGC's Calum Mackenzie's near-faultless golf. Following the match's conclusion both captains set off to encourage their troops and Babar in particular was all over the course like Severiano at Valderrama.
At lunch CUGC led in five games, OUGC led in four and one match was tied. The supporters in the clubhouse scrutinised the sheet to try to divine the outcome. If things stayed as they were Cambridge would win by 8 ½ to 6 ½.
Only two matches looked certain: in match 8 the pedigree Scott Jeen for Cambridge was well up against Emily Wang and in match 10 Oxford’s vicar Joe Griffiths was playing seriously good golf and was six up against Jo Hann. In the absence of a Lazarine comeback these results looked secure – and so it turned out.
Oxford’s best chances to confound the lunchtime prediction appeared to be to get a win in match 5, which was level, hold on to match 4 where the lead was two holes and turnaround matches 7 and 9, where the deficit was only two and three holes respectively. And that is precisely what happened.
OUGC put some early points on the board with wins for Josh Fallows, Qassi Gaba and Niall Curwen in matches 3, 4 & 5. Meanwhile, a varsity singles match for the ages was battled out between Oxford's Kevin O'Donnell and Cambridge's Philip Gerber, the latter prevailing on the 35th hole after a back and forth golfing spectacle. The early results left the match finely poised, with the scores level at 6-6. As anticipated throughout the week, it was clear that the 133rd University Match was going right down to the wire.
One of OUGC's two undergraduate freshers, Tom Thornton, showed experience beyond his years as he dismantled the challenge of Cambridge's Matt Bertenshaw, to put the Dark Blues in front for the first time all week as the conclusion drew near.
The final two games left on the course were close affairs, and the drama was far from over. Match 7 was all square after 16. This featured CUGC’s evergreen Wit Wannakrairoj from Thailand, playing in his fourth Varsity Match, and OUGC’s Tom Nicholls, a six foot six giant playing as usual in shorts and in his first match. Behind them, match 9 saw last year’s CUGC skipper Balgarnie against the unheralded Tom Hadfield. Hadfield was a third-year undergrad with three badminton Blues to his name, but he had never tried his hand for OUGC. In the morning Balgarnie stood two under par playing the 17th – which he lost to an eagle – and he must have been rather surprised to find that Hadfield hadn’t been shaken off, with the match only 2 up in CUGC's favour.
OUGC needed only one more point to reach the tally of 8 required for victory, as the pressure intensified and the buzz around the spectacular links became even more palpable. Perhaps the most pivotal moment of the week ensued, as Tom Nicholls' monstrous drive split Formby's 17th fairway in two, whilst his opponent's sailed into the unforgiving rough that lurked down the left, never to be seen again.
Almost simultaneously, Tom Hadfield's wonderfully struck iron found the heart of the 16th green, ensuring he moved to dormy over his experienced opponent with 2 to play. All that was needed was for Nicholls to seal the deal on 17 to move to dormy playing the last, and he did just that. His 3 foot putt was greeted by the roars of his teammates as Oxford once more claimed victory in the oldest amateur golf fixture.
Both Toms closed out their wins, meaning Oxford had won by 9-6. Plaudits go to Babar for his leadership of the least experienced Oxford team for many years. OUGC will be back next year to defend their title, this time at the stunning Royal Dornoch Golf Club in Scotland, for what promises to be yet another exciting contest between the two sides.