Andy’s glory in a thriller at the Vila

Andy Nurse, winner of the Gazette/Blacktax Matchplay golf tournament final, held at the Old Course, Vilamoura
Andy Nurse, winner of the Gazette/Blacktax Matchplay golf tournament final, held at the Old Course, Vilamoura

ANDY Nurse is the toast of Fleetwood GC and the whole Fylde coast golfing fraternity after being crowned Gazette/Blacktax Matchplay champion for 2011.

But although Andy was a worthy recipient of the coveted trophy, our four finalists were all winners – enjoying a four-day golfing trip of a lifetime to Vilamoura on the Portuguese Algarve.

The flights from Blackpool International, and three-night full-board stay at the luxurious Hotel Vila Gale Ampalius, were fully funded by Blacktax taxis, sponsoring the event for the second time.

The four finalists, Mike Cunliffe, Ralph Harwood, Andy Nurse and Dave Worrall, had earned their places on the plane by winning through half a dozen rounds in a competition which began in April.

They were accompanied by Blacktax’s Ian Wharmby and Erwin Belsky, who served as hosts and match referees.

Vilamoura boasts six splendid courses, including the prestigious Old Course, which staged the semi-finals and final.

Andy defied a thrilling late comeback by Mike to win their semi one-up, then staged one of his own in the final, before Andy prevailed 2&1. Andy had earlier shown his excellent form by defeating Ralph 5&4 in their semi.

Each of our finalists got to play three rounds in all, relaxing in between around the spectacular Vilamoura marina, and received a commemorative hipflask.

Ian said: “They were a great group of lads who played to a high standard in just the right spirit. It was a pleasure to spend time with them, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s event.”

Maybe we should have known it was to be Andy’s year: He had been drawn at home in all the previous rounds and his only away draw was against a fellow Fleetwood player!

But it took more than good fortune to win this testing tournament. Here’s how the Vilamoura drama unfolded ...

THE FINALISTS:

Mike perhaps went into the finals as favourite. The St Annes Old Links player is the youngest (at 38), has the lowest handicap (4) and won the event four years ago, when the final was staged in the slightly less exotic surroundings of Slaley Hall in Northumberland. Born in Yorkshire, he is a tiler based in Bispham.

Ralph is another former finalist (2009), and was the only one of the quartet who can claim to make a living out of sport – he sells pool tables. A 10-handicapper at De Vere Heron’s Reach, Ralph is 47 and lives in Wigan.

The final four was unchartered territory for Andy, a 45-year-old banker from Poulton, who plays off eight and had some clubmates from Fleetwood GC in Portugal to cheer him on.

First-time entrant Dave, 42, represented the Poulton club. Based in Hambleton, the 11-handicapper works for a Chorley IT firm.

THE SEMI-FINALS:

Dave was drawn against Michael, the highest handicapper against the lowest, meaning Dave received an extra shot on the four hardest holes.

Ralph received one shot in his semi against Andy.

Andy and Dave had both made flying starts to establish commanding early leads which they were able to cling to, though Dave was hanging on grimly at the end.

Andy was out of the blocks like lightning, winning the first three holes and going four up after five (he squandered a good chance to win the fourth too). An excellent second shot to the sixth enabled Ralph to pull one back, but that was as good as it got for the Wiganer.

As Ralph plays off a 10 handicap (compared to Andy’s eight), he received an extra stroke on the toughest hole, the eighth, but he couldn’t take advantage and on the ninth Andy regained his four-hole lead.

That’s how it remained as the next five holes were halved, leaving Andy victorious 5&4.

Their 14th and final hole will live long in the memory of both players as three successive shots rebounded off trees.

Ralph had never smashed two shots in a row against tree trunks before and Andy sympathised, saying: “I had a bit of luck and Ralph had some bad luck, particularly hitting those trees, and I hit one out of sympathy!

“I made a really good start and managed to keep it going. You can never feel too comfortable at three up which is why I was pleased to keep it at four.”

Dave’s hopes of a similarly early ending to his semi-final were dashed in nailbiting style as Mike, three down with three to play, produced a storming late rally to leave the outcome uncertain until the final hole.

You’d never have thought Dave had the higher handicap as he led by three after four holes, but Mike hit back by winning the next two, driving superbly to the short sixth.

The comeback was halted by a lost ball at the eighth, and a superb second to the 11th restored Dave’s three-hole cushion.

Mike played the perfect 12th hole to narrow the gap, but that was immedietely cancelled out at 13, where Dave hit a dream second from the rough.

Mike kept the match alive by sinking a long pressure putt on 15, but he still had everything to do, with Dave dormie three and boosted by an extra shot on two of the closing three holes.

The one-shot bonus couldn’t save him after a wild hook off the tee at 16, and Mike’s great second to 17 meant everything was still to play for going up the last.

It wasn’t only Dave who was feeling the tension, as the final hole began with two wayward tee shots, but Dave’s cracking third to five feet meant there was no way for Mike (again having to concede a shot on this hole) to complete a miracle comeback.

Dave was delighted to hang in what he felt was a bit of a grudge encounter. He said: “I knew Mike really wanted to beat me, because I’d knocked out his best mate in the last round.”

“It was a belting match, though Mike made me work hard.”

THE FINAL:

You could feel the tension in the air ... and that was only off the course as a spectator (Dave’s mum) and a Gazette photographer were shown the red card for breach of the course dress code.

Both were spared the early bath and soon returned, their offending collarless shirt and sandals nowhere to be seen, as everyone’s complete attention could focus on the drama on the Old Course.

After both finalists steadied their nerves with solid fours on the first, Andy moved one up on the second with a fine putt from the edge of the green after Dave drove into woods.

The approach play of both was solid to the third, but Dave’s three-putt left him two in arrears.

Both found the green with their drives on the first short hole, the fourth, which was halved after Andy narrowly missed his birdie putt.

Andy preserved his two-shot lead with an excellent single putt on the fifth green after playing three off the tee.

Both then missed the green on the second par three, Dave conceding after chipping through the green to go three down after six.

It could have got worse for Dave as his second to the seventh hit a tree, but an excellent third to three feet saved the hole.

Both took five at the eighth, but Dave won it, despite a wayward drive, as this was the first of the two holes on which received a shot.

Dave won a second hole in succession with a 20-foot putt to reach the turn just one down.

Both mishit their drives to the short 10th, but recovered well to halve, hitting their second shots blind from the valley base.

It was at this point that Andy began to make his his decisive move, winning the 11th, when Dave missed a putt, to halve after another encounter with a tree trunk by the fairway.

Andy went three up at 12, making the most of his good fortune, when a wild drive bounced back on to the fairway, and hitting an excellent third to 15 feet.

Andy won his third successive hole at 13, recovering the better after two wayward drives, as Dave missed a six-footer to go four down.

After both found sand approaching the 14th, Andy had a chip for the match from just off the green. That didn’t fall, but neither did Dave’s three-footer for the hole. The half left him at the point of no return – four down with four to play.

The nerves were certainly showing at the final short hole. Neither player drove on to the 15th green, and both hit second shots through the other side. Dave got down in two, leaving Andy a 12-footer for a half and the match. He missed, and the game was still on.

The 16th was the second hole on which Dave got a shot, and he made the most of it, despite taking his third from further away than his second after another game of pinball with a tree. He then left a long putt 10 feet short, but then sank the pressure putt of the match to trail by two with two to play.

Dave maintained momentum by playing two fine shots to 17, but all the pressure was back on his shoulders after Andy’s excellent chipped third. Two missed putts later from Dave and it was game over, 2&1.

THE VERDICTS:

Andy: I got a bit of a run going after the turn and he had a bit of bad luck. The pressure was getting to me at the end, but I had a good drive and chip at 17. He let me off the hook with a couple of three putts, but great credit to Dave for coming back like he did.

I’ve never won more than two or three rounds in this event before, so this was great. It’s a beautiful course and perfect weather.

Dave: I was disappointed with my game after how I had played the previous day, but I can’t argue with the winner. Andy played the most consistent golf of the four of us. He is a lovely fella as well as a great player.

This was the first time I’ve entered, and we’ll see if it was first-time lucky. When I decided to start doing the Lottery I won first week, but have won nothing since.

There was a lot of interest at Poulton.It’s a small, family club and they were pleased to have someone in the final, and hopefully it will raise the club’s profile.

Mike: I was always struggling in the semi after losing the first two holes, but I got back into it and took it to the last. Dave hit a great third shot to the pin which crippled me. But the course is beautiful and if you can’t enjoy that you’ll never enjoy a round of golf.

Ralph: “When you are three down after four you are on a hiding to nothing. Andy played well and deserved to win our semi, though a lot of my problems were self-inflicted. I guess there are around 3,000 trees on the course, and I think I hit 2,800 of them.”