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“If you succumb to the notion of par then Aldeburgh is as tough as old boots.” This review went on to say that Aldeburgh at par 68 is hard as nails and relentless in its challenge. But what is par? Agreeably the Varsity Match has always been matchplay and, as the world’s oldest amateur golf tournament, it set the precedent for all the great golfing team events - and par is an irrelevance.

Anyway, let us get in to the 2021 Varsity match.


*** Spoiler alert! ***

The headlines read:


“Last hole, last match, Oxford birdie sneaks win in Ladies match.”

“Cambridge snatch both Singles in Dinner Match overturning Foursomes defeat. Heavy price to pay for Oxford as Kummel flows at Dinner.”

“Captains halve their Foursomes and Singles matches. Class acts, impossible to separate.”

“Oxford player threatens to rugby tackle Cambridge official into the gorse!”

“Varsity Match tied for fifth time in 132 outings. A vintage edition.”

The 132nd match was terrific fun, lots of great golf to watch, some exciting cameo moments and even a bit of niggle towards the end of the day which shows the result mattered (in case anyone is in any doubt). A celebration of amateur golf and one of the great sporting rivalries.

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the ladies match

The Ladies’ Varsity Match is six a side, three foursomes in the morning and six singles in the afternoon. Played since 1998, this was the 23rd iteration. The match was played on the same day as the Dinner Match – rather than earlier in the week – a successful recipe which will be continued next year. It meant bigger crowds for their match.

There are two words to describe the Ladies’ golf at Aldeburgh: good and fast. Play was brisk without exception. It was a joy to see. And the standard of golf was exceedingly high. With lower swing speeds and spin rates, the ladies’ drives did not balloon on the wind in the same way as the men’s. At Aldeburgh in 30-40 mph winds, the 300-yard wayward drive is carried 30, 40 or even 50 yards wide of the fairway which means gorse, bracken and general unpleasantness.

With each hole so much in its own space at Aldeburgh there are precious few opportunities for the rogue drive to find the next fairway. One set off on a ball hunt much in the same way as one might start an expedition to find the source of the Nile. With machetes. Or Land Rovers. Or both.

However, the Ladies’ rare wayward drives generally carried only into the fescue rough and were salvageable. It must also be said the wind was not quite so strong on the first day of competition.

As to the result, Cambridge took a 2-1 lead from the Foursomes into the Singles. After a gritty half in the top Single, Oxford had the better of the next four matches leaving the Dark Blues only needing a half in the bottom match for the win.

Yvonne Zheng for Cambridge had other ideas. A feisty player who struck the ball with vim, she was 1UP with two holes to play and, when she flushed a towering iron into the short 17th – the ball coming to rest 10 feet from the hole - and Emma Sands for Oxford went in a bunker, it looked like a halved Varsity match. But Emma played an exquisite SW to a few feet of the hole. Yvonne could not hole the birdie putt so it was a half in three and on to the last, Cambridge still 1UP and needing to hold on for the win to win the Varsity Match.

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By the time the players reached their approach shots on the par 5 18th hole (a par four for the men), the bar had emptied and crowds had materialised around the green as word got out there was a tight finish. There was nowhere to hide; this was high stakes team golf.

Cambridge’s wedge from 60 yards was all over the flag, coming to rest about 15 feet past the pin, a certain five and possible four. Now Oxford had to get up and down for birdie from 30 yards to have a chance. Emma stepped up to the ball and played a delightful low pitch which bounced and grabbed coming to rest 6-7 feet from the cup. Yvonne failed to make her birdie putt and the stage was set, a putt for Oxford to win the match. Emma glanced at the line, took her stance and made her stroke – all within about five seconds. The ball rolled into the middle of the cup for the crucial birdie. Pandemonium ensued. Oxford had won the Ladies’ match by 5-4.

A few minutes earlier, as the crowd walked to the last green and pondered a halved match, an interesting question was posed: if the scores are tied after normal time, what is the process to find a winner? There had never before been a tied Ladies’ Varsity Match. The point remains academic for at least another year.

 

But as the Ladies play for a rather beautiful trophy which features a golf ball which is held in either the Oxford or Cambridge niche for a year, there is an argument for having a play-off to decide who wins. In these times when TV requires a winner, perhaps the captains should play off in sudden death? It would certainly be exciting.

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the DINNER match

The Dinner Match was the only event in the week that was affected by Covid, one of the Cambridge players, Brahm, having to isolate and miss the match. His shoes were filled at short notice by a Stymie, Tommy Zhao.

After an easy win for the Oxford pair, Divots Captains of the previous two seasons Lee Priest and Sam Hitchcock, in the Foursomes there was little expectation that Cambridge would compete in the Singles. In fact it was exceedingly tight and there was much drama to unfold.

Max Higgo won the first Single for the Light Blues playing near-par golf. The second match went all the way. As the crowds grew the pressure was palpable; both players’ swings got a tad tight and in the end Tommy for Cambridge was last man standing after an epic 18th hole, winning his match to secure the Light Blue victory.

It turned out to be a bad Dinner Match for Oxford to lose, two cases of Kummel being consumed before the coffee had been served.

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Day 1 - foursomes

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The wind picked up for the foursomes, gusting 30-40 mph with periods of driving rain and even hail at one point lashing the course. The bracken- and gorse-covered hills looked positively Scottish at times, reminiscent of Gleneagles on a bad day. Mercifully the wind was so strong that the rain blew through to leave periods of sun before the next salvo. It was typical British summer weather where all four seasons were endured in one day, at least thrice over. It was very hard to get one’s wardrobe right.

Cambridge appeared to be dominating the Foursomes, up in four matches at lunch with only the very strong Oxford pairing of Giddins and Fallows in Match 5 ahead at the half way point.

In Match 1, the wily Wit and Nielsen held on for a Light Blue win by 2&1 over the big-hitting Greg Royston and Karl Frey. Royston played US college golf whilst at Harvard before exploring pro golf for a year and then arriving at Oxford. This was, dare I say, an unexpected win for Cambridge.

In similar vein two first time Blues, Mountford and Worrall, convincingly won for Cambridge against the seasoned pairing of Lowe and Haq (OUGC captain-elect) in Match 2.

Match 3 was a different story. A strong Cambridge pair, Foster and Clewett, led by four at lunch but were reeled in by the evergreen Howard-Jenkins (OUGC captain in 2017 – or was it 1917?) and his partner Joe Griffiths, a theology student and trainee cleric who proved his worth with grace at dinner. The Dean of Ely has company. Fantastic golf over the closing holes meant a Dark Blue win by 1 hole.

In Match 5, sure enough Rory Giddins and Josh Fallows won by 4&3 in a match of very high quality, beating CUGC captain-elect Calum Mackenzie and his partner Scott Jeen. Fallows plays off +2 at Birkdale and at 19 years old he will be a thorn for Cambridge for some time to come.

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So, with the scores level 2-2, to the pivotal Match 4. James Balgarnie (CUGC captain) and Ed Springett (OUGC captain) were drawn against each other in the foursomes, partnered by Alex Gunn and Tom Bradley (a lefty) respectively. Cambridge played the better golf to lead by four at lunch, but this was whittled away by an Oxford fightback in the afternoon. The match ebbed and flowed, both sides leading at different points on the back nine, with Bradley holing from 25 feet at 16 for Oxford to level the match. The final two holes were halved leaving the Varsity Match tied at 2 1⁄2 all after Day 1.

 

The programme notes had expressed a wish for a close Varsity Match. But a halved match is very rare, nearly as rare as the spoonbills which have returned to Suffolk after a 300 year absence. Surely it could not happen...

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Day 2 - SINGLES

Lighter winds of 15-25mph and drier skies were forecast for the Singles. Having won 10 of the last 11 Varsity Matches and with six returning Blues to only three for Cambridge, it was felt that Oxford would be too strong. Well behind in five of the first six Singles matches at lunch and with a large lead only in the bottom match, it seemed Cambridge were destined for another year of woe. But it was by no means over.

Captain Balgarnie overturned a five hole deficit at lunch to be only one down when he reached the par four 13th hole, closing in on his opposite number. But when Captain Springett hit a career 3W second to the middle of the green – one of the shots of the day – and Balgarnie went right, then right again at the 14th hole, the Oxford lead was suddenly three with only four to play. Balgarnie wasn’t done. He won the next three holes. Match all square on the very difficult and very long 18th, both hit immaculate drives against the wind. Balgarnie then flushed a two iron into the heart of the green, pin high, a stunning shot. Springett bravely followed him in with a crunched three wood. Both approach putts ended around 3 to 3 1⁄2 feet from the flag. A look was exchanged, an eyebrow raised, a hand extended – and a half agreed.

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In Match 2 the better ball was 3 or 4 under par at lunch and the score level. In a classy encounter Lowe for Oxford edged Mackenzie by 3&2.

Match 3 saw the unstoppable Giddins win comfortably against Wannakriroj. Giddins’ final tally in the Varsity Match is seven out of a possible eight points in his four years at Oxford. His golf simply suffocates opponents – all elements of his game precise, leaving no opening.

The next 30 minutes saw a slew of matches decided, with heavy Cambridge wins in the bottom three matches and handy wins for Oxford in Matches 5 and 6. So with only two matches still going, the score was balanced in Oxford’s favour at 7 – 6, and with Oxford at Dormy two up in Match 4 and level in Match 7, unless something happened Oxford were on course for a win by 1 or perhaps 2 points.

 

Fate was to step in. In Match 4, Oxford’s Royston – the Harvard man – at dormy two up lost the long par three 17th to an excellent birdie and then, after the Light Blue Nielsen had smashed one of the best tee shots of the day at the long 18th into the wind, Royston went left into gorse – by no means the first person to do so during the week but, unluckily for him, the last – to lose the hole and halve the match. Royston gracefully shook hands with Nielsen. Smiling ruefully, this thoroughbred golfer said his experience of the Varsity Match had lived up to everything he had heard about it and more besides.

 

And that’s when the trouble began...

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The long 16th had taken its toll all week. Straight into the wind and with a yawning cross bunker 100 yards from the green, it was a tough decision to lay-up off the tee. Many drives had gorsy graves, both left and right, and the deciding match between two first time Blues, Worrall and Bradley, was no exception. After Cambridge went left into the edge of the gorse, Oxford went further left, deep into the heart of darkness. The Oxford provisional drive was long and straight. And now the scene is set for some rules controversy.

A discussion was being held at ever-increasing volume. In the centre of the throng was one of the R&A’s top rules officials, dressed in full Cambridge regalia, now featured on Sky’s coverage of the Open. The Cambridge ball was dropped for a penalty out of the gorse at a two club distance, with the Oxford man some 50 yards up the fairway over his second ball.

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“A ball has been found in the gorse and it has to be identified,” was the opening gambit from the R&A rules man. “A ball has been found in the vicinity of the Oxford player’s first shot and the Rules require him to ascertain if it is his.” “And if it is...?” “Then it is in play and the second ball is not.” Ahh. The penny dropped, finally.

The Oxford player was called back to the ball. “Don’t go!” they urged in the Dark Blue ranks. The rule was explained with great expertise and calmness by the learned spectator. Crisis averted.

The Oxford man ducked into the gorse to identify the ball which had been found and, to general relief, he declared it wasn’t his. An Oxford roar of celebration went up. The temperature had been dialled up and the next 10 minutes had all the atmosphere of the Varsity Boxing Match – passionate and partisan, just as it should be.

Back to the action, Worrall for Cambridge hacked out of the rough for three and made a solid approach shot to the back of the green in four. Bradley for Oxford had already played in, also on the back of the green in four, with every shot now greeted by huge roars.

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The pin was front left in a bowl nestled behind the front bunker. The putts from the back of the green were about 50-55 feet, downhill all the way with a steep shelf about two-thirds along the route, and downwind to boot. Very difficult to get close, 10+ feet past seemed the likely result. First Oxford. Bradley’s putt was super soft, nearly stopping at the top of the shelf before trickling over and rolling out to 6 inches next to the hole. The noise was deafening. Down in six shots.

 

Now Worrall for Cambridge stepped up to his 50-foot putt, just as downhill but with perhaps 6 foot of right-to-left break. He tapped it and, improbably, some nine seconds later the ball dropped in at the middle of the cup deadweight for a winning five. A brilliant putt. The whooping was audible in the Two Magpies Tea Shoppe on Aldeburgh High Street.

Dormy two up, Worrall played a solid shot into the short 17th and when Bradley found the bunker and could not make three, hands were shaken and Cambridge had halved the 132nd Varsity Match. Great fun, great sport.

And finally, next year should see the return of a March date at Formby for the 133rd edition with CUGC holding a slim lead of six matches over OUGC in the series.