The Duel in Dornoch
the 134th mAtch
Royal Dornoch Golf CLUB
23rd-25TH MARCH 2023
One worries about meeting one's heroes, but Royal Dornoch does not disappoint. For the benefit of those who have never visited, the course stretches east out from the centre of town, and then heads north across linksland between a high ridge and the firth. Some of the holes are on the upper level, a sort of mezzanine deck, whilst others are at sea level. One meanders along and between the two heights, flanked by ramparts of gorse, the sea always in sight. Looking West, snow-capped mountains of the Highlands gleam in the sun. Truly it is a charmed site for golf and one needs the Dictionary of Geographical Terms to do justice to the natural beauty on offer.
However, despite its natural beauty, Dornoch is a true championship test, bunkers prowling around its impossibly large green complexes, whilst gorse looms for those errant shots. The sea should also not go without mention, the ninth tracking the Dornoch firth along its entire length. And if horizon greens are the sine qua non then Dornoch is summa cum laude, boasting three wonderful specimens at two, seven and sixteen. Thus it was a mystery as to why it had taken so long for the journey to be made to this magnificent club and course, a place which seems to be tailor made for the Varsity Match. One felt as if they were coming home.
So let us speak of microclimates. We have all heard members drone on about them. One nods and smiles and glances around desperately for an escape, but Dornoch's microclimate is extraordinary - and its real! On the Friday of the match we had mostly sun, with just thirty minutes of light drizzle falling on the links. We could see storm squalls and sheets of rain gathering on all sides. Yet the member who lived on the other side of town declared that it had rained solidly all day at home. Truly then, this is a blessed piece of land.
The Stymies delivered the first blow of the week for Cambridge at Brora Golf Club, where - in appalling conditions - they beat the Divots by 8.5 to 6.5, just holding on after a strong performance in the morning's foursomes. Commiserations to their captain Dermot Leggett, who led his troops with great zeal across their season of golf.
The Ladies' Match heralded the first Oxford victory of the week, fine golf being played on both sides. In the foursomes, Tosia Lecka and Maura Burns-Zargoza handed down a 10 & 9 win, a scoreline only bettered by Amy Anson and Anna Stankova with their 13 & 12 triumph over the Cambridge opposition. Leading 3 - 1 into the singles, the Ladies were then able to cement their advantage, the match ending with a convincing 6 - 3 win for Oxford. However, most notable was the great camaraderie in which the game was played, players from both universities setting a wonderful precedent for the years to come.
Following on from this, Oxford took the Dinner Match in style with strong performances in both the foursomes and the singles. Struan Hancock played the best golf of the week, producing an under-par performance which included a near ace on the tenth hole - very out of character! This effort had been matched earlier by Cambridge's Peter Allen, who was denied what would have been a fabulous Varsity hole-in-one by a firm lip out. Working under the radar, Jack Palmer was a critical influence in the foursomes, narrowly losing out to ex-Stymie Ian King in the afternoon singles.
Thus, the men's game began in earnest, excitement having built towards what was billed to be a close encounter. And indeed it was, Oxford seizing a narrow 3 - 2 lead after the foursomes. This, it must be said, went against the recent run of play, Cambridge holding a prodigious record on the first day of the Varsity Match in recent years.
The top match was a high class affair, with sporting pedigree amongst the dark blue pairing of Chris Little and Matthew Tweddell. The latter played professional golf following his days as an undergraduate in Hawaii, whilst the former represented England as a junior golfer. Therefore, on paper they were the strong favourites against opponents George Crawley and Henry Weston. However, credit should be given to Cambridge, who were far from intimidated.
Despite being out in level par, Oxford found themselves only four holes ahead at lunch, a small margin in a thirty-six hole game. As is often the case, the opening holes in the afternoon proved pivotal. It was here that strong golf from the Oxford side overwhelmed Crawley and Weston, the match culminating in a strong victory for Little and Tweddell.
The bottom foursomes match also deserves a mention, it being the first time a 'Spanish Armada' has featured in the University Golf Match. The Mexican Pablo Valdes and the Spanish Philip Winter, accompanied by a faithful caddy called Geronimo, cut a stylish jib for Cambridge at the rear, playing in an expansive style reminiscent of Philip II's attempts to restore Catholic dominion to Europe. Although, if they knew their schoolboy history, they may have known what was coming. One cannot exactly say the Armada was blown off course given the precious little wind on the Friday. Rather, they were sunk at the hands of Captain Josh Fallows, playing the role of Lord Charles Howard, and Gaspard Oliviers, his partner, Sir Francis Drake.
Play continued for another ninety minutes as reports dripped in of Oxford wins. In game two, the evergreen Karl Frey played some fabulous golf, just the medicine to secure a win over the flamboyant Max Higgo. Similarly, the following encounter between Little and Thomas was characterised by its high-quality play, the former too strong in the end and one of the stand-outs of the week. He will be a name to follow at Rye.
'Rooney' Sikand, straight out of Yale, took inspiration from his namesakes' number of international goals on the front nine, indicative of the pressure that the Varsity Match can place on even the most experienced golfers. Nonetheless, he battled hard over the remainder of the match, and though the mountain proved too high to climb, produced a commendable comeback that won him the respect of many.
The big hitting Jonathan Pinnell, out fifth for CUGC, lost in a super match against Tweddell. The Cambridge man, a powerlifter with superman dimensions, achieves clubhead speeds of 139mph. At the par four fifteenth he landed his drive on the green over 340 yards away, the ball narrowly missing for what would have been an epic albatross. Two holes later, however, he lost at the 35th where Tweddell crunched a towering draw off the tee, risking gorse left and right. He then flicked it onto the green with a lob wedge and sank the putt for birdie.
Another high quality match in trap six was contested between returning blues Matthew Roberts and Thomas Thornton, the latter playing out of Hollywood, Northern Ireland. Ending in a Cambridge victory, the match could have swung either way as the bottom four matches moved into their final nine holes. Oliver Brunt delivered an important point against the other half of the Spanish Armada, Philip Winter, whilst Gaspard Oliviers and Niall Curwen - the incoming OUGC captain - closed out the match for Oxford with fine wins against the German Rennefeld and the Englishman Weston. Oliviers, in particular, provided excitement at every turn, making par from here, there and everywhere.
Then, as the gloom gathered, Cambridge's Crawley overturned a lunchtime deficit of three holes to Choi to win the final match at the 35th. And so ended a fine week in Scotland, Oxford once again victorious in golf's oldest amateur fixture. The Captains' match may not have been pivotal to the result, but one is sure that it will be remembered in years to come, a wonderful balance of fine golf and gentlemanly conduct. With both Alex and Josh returning for the match at Rye in 2024, it would be nice symmetry if they were drawn together in the singles for a decider.
Accordingly, as the singles order was announced at Friday night's cocktail party the match could have been best described as finely poised, excitement building for what was expected to be a dramatic finish on the Saturday. This was only added to by a series of unexpected matchups, all of which looked difficult to call - even the most experienced gambler would have had great difficulty placing his bets with confidence.
Dornoch woke to a chilly day, four degrees colder with a biting Easterly then Northerly wind, turned 180 degrees from Friday’s zephyr. Straight into this breeze, the 'drivable' first hole was devilish, whilst the long par three second was positively evil. The golf course was, in totality, playing perhaps four to five shots harder.
The top match between the captains, Alex Mair against Josh Fallows, headlined in a repeat of their encounter at last year's Varsity. There, Mair had lost by 6 & 5 as a freshman. The question was how much better he had got with a second year of university golf in the tank, and if it would be enough to give Josh a run for his money - as one is reminded frequently, the Oxford captain won the President's Putter as an undergraduate in 2022, a victory matched only by his triumph at Royal Birkdale's Club Championship.
This was a simply wonderful game to watch. An exhibition of high class striking and deft short games under the utmost pressure, all under the eyes of a crowd of 40 - 50 spectators. One man took the honour, then the other would strike back. There was nothing between them. As one small example, at the par five twelfth they were both putting from inside 15 feet for eagles. Neither converted and this was the one thing missing from the game – few putts were holed from outside 8 feet, although both came close.
Mair was up by one or two for most of the morning round, however, when Fallows finally wrested the lead one knew it would be hard for him to come back. But that he did, showing character and grit. Still one down with four to go, playing the very tough 15th hole, Mair finally holed from twenty feet to level the match with three to play. Both then made knee- tremblers to halve the 16th and 17th in par. So they arrived at the thirty-sixth all square, just as they had started.
Mair was at the back of the green in two, facing 50 feet of downhill slope, a seriously difficult putt. He struck it beautifully, pace spot on, and all but holed it, the ball coming to rest around three to four feet past. Fallows was pin high to the left, with a tricky putt across a slope of half the distance. A good attempt ended just short, at a similar length to Mair.
For those who were there, one needs not tell you what happens next. But for the sake of any readers unfamiliar with the result, you need only know this. The record books will show Mair beat Fallows by 1UP, a cruel ending to a titanic tussle - the Duel in Dornoch.