Irish eyes are renowned for smiling, so the old song goes, but those of Maurice Cashman were beaming like the Portuguese sunshine after the North Shore Golf Club member broke records galore to be crowned Gazette/Blacktax Matchplay champion for 2014 on the Algarve .
Having entered our annual competition for 15 years without ever progressing beyond the second round, the Poulton-based man from County Cork won through to the final four in Portugal, where he overcame last year’s winner Brad Sarjantson 4&3 in the semi-finals and another former champion Andy Nurse 3&2 in the final to become the oldest (at 70) and highest-handicapped (18) victor in the event’s history.
These three and our fourth semi-finalist Glenn Rogerson all spent three unforgettable days at the resplendent Penina Golf Resort, playing the Sir Henry Cotton Championship Course, regular home of the Portuguese Open.
Generous sponsor/host Ian Wharmby of Blackpool taxi firm Blacktax funded the quartet’s flights, matches and luxurious five-star accommodation, while presiding over three excellent matches which saw a charming new champion crowned against the odds.
Cashman, who has never played golf outside the UK before, said: “To enter a competition for such a small fee and play all the local courses for free, can you ask for anything better? And to end up on a flight from Blackpool to Faro ... isn’t that wonderful?”
As skydivers practised alongside the course, Cashman’s consistent play made his opponents come down to earth with quite a bump.
There had never been a wider handicap gulf between two finalists, 13, which meant five-handicapper Nurse had to give Cashman a shot on 10 of the 18 holes.
It posed some challenging questions for the 2011 champion from Fleetwood GC, but Nurse had all the answers in the first nine, which he completed two holes to the good and with Cashman having used up half of his additional shots.
Maurice won just one hole on the outward nine, losing two on which he had a shot, before an unexpected and most dramatic turnaround.
Cashman didn’t lose another hole, reeling off five in succession from the 10th to transform that deficit into a three-hole lead.
That five-hole winning run included two holes on which he didn’t get a shot, including a 439-year par five.
“I’m delighted with the way I played,” Maurice said. “I was pretty consistent in the semi-final and consistent from the tenth hole onwards on the second day.
“The first nine in the final were a bit of a blur, but then my opponent went through a very sticky patch and I probably took advantage of that.”
But it was Nurse who took advantage of Cashman’s slow start, the Irishman three-putting on each of the first three holes to find himself one down, with two of his extra shots squandered.
Andy won the first with a par after chipping to three feet, Maurice failing to get down in two from 20 feet.
It was a similar story on the second as Andy had to settle for bogey after driving into trees but this was still good enough for a half as Maurice missed from two feet.
And Maurice’s putting again proved costly as the third was also halved with bogeys, although Cashman was on the green in two, whereas Andy needed three to reach the front edge.
Maurice missed another putt for the hole at four, from eight feet for a nett birdie, while Andy halved with a solid four, driving 240 yards down the middle and chipping his third within inches of the pin.
Andy drove even further at the par-five fifth but fatally found water with his second, enabling Maurice to play safe for a nett par and his first hole win to level the match.
Nurse was unruffled at this stage, driving to 10 feet at the short sixth and narrowly missing the birdie putt for the most solid of pars. It all looked too much for Maurice, who had a lie down on the tee but summoned the energy to save par with a six-foot putt for a half.
The respite was brief as Andy regained the lead on seven with an impressive par. Safely on in two, his 18-foot birdie putt was stone dead, leaving Maurce the thankless task of holing from 20 feet for a half.
Both played the short eighth well for par, Andy chipping to two feet and Maurice driving to the heart of the great before his 20-foot birdie putt went so close.
Both then found sand on their way to the ninth green but Andy made par after an excellent long putt stopped inches short, and Maurice paid the price for allowing his first putt to roll eight feet past.
But come the turn, the match did precisely that. Maurice had often heard the dreaded call of “dead sheep” (meaning ‘still you’, get it?) on the outward nine but he proved anything but a lamb to the slaughter over the next five holes.
The back nine begins with two par fives but Nurse couldn’t make his extra length count. Good chips left both close after four on the 10th but it was Maurice who holed his putt for a nett birdie.
Andy needed to win the next par five, on which Cashman didn’t have a shot, but he drove into trees and fired his third out of bounds. Maurice putted to within a foot from off the green and his par left the match all square.
Both shot sixes on the 12th, each missing a three-foot putt, but a nett bogey was enough to give Maurice the lead for the first time.
Cashman’s cracking drive stopped 15 feet from the pin on the 165-yard 13th and rattled Andy, who drove left and was left needing to hole from off the green to match Maurice’s par.
Andy outdrove Maurice by 70 yards at 14 but couldn’t make it pay, despite being on the green in two. Maurice chipped his third to eight feet and holed for nett birdie.
Cashman’s run of victories ended at 15, but it felt like another win for the Irishman who three-putted the short par four but escaped with a half after Andy missed a two-foot par putt.
That left Maurice dormie three and the 16th proved the last. Neither found the green on this final short hole, Andy’s last hope a 15-foot par putt which he missed right.
Nurse said: “It was going well until the halfway mark but a couple of loose shots have cost me. Maurice gained some momentum and played some very good shots, and I began to run out of holes.”
Nurse gave a commanding performance in Friday’s semi-finals, winning three and two despite having to give Rogerson four shots.
Andy didn’t lose a hole on the front nine, reaching the turn four up after winning three in succession from six to eight.
He had taken the lead on the third with a par four, then had an eagle putt on five but his eventual birdie was only good enough for a half as he had to give Glenn a shot.
Then came Andy’s decisive run as he left birdie putts stone dead on six and seven, then sank an eight-foot par put to win the eighth.
When Glenn finally won a couple of holes, Nurse hit back immediately each time.
Rogerson took the long 10th after three solid shots to the green but then conceded 11 after finding deep trouble down the left.
And after Glenn’s excellent second shot to 12 resulted in a nett birdie, Andy restored his four-hole lead on 165-yard 13th by driving to three and a half feet and making his second birdie.
Nurse missed a birdie putt for the match at 14, where Rogerson stayed alive thanks to his extra shot and a great chip to inside a foot.
Standing dormie four, Nurse finally showed signs of nerves at 15, when a double-bogey left Rogerson two putts from 35 yards to extend the match.
The late drama looked like continuing on16 as Glenn drove to six feet on the last short hole, but his birdie putt stayed out and Andy made par to seal victory.
Rogerson had no complaints, saying: “I was unlucky with a putt to take the match to the 16th but Andy played phenomenal golf.
“I did give him a couple of holes but I’m pleased with how I played.
“He had a little wobble at the end but that always happens. Finishing the game is the hardest part of matchplay.”
Sarjantson’s bid to retain the title he won last year in Vilamoura never really got going in the other semi against Cashman. Always struggling to force the issue against an opponent to whom he had to give seven shots, Brad was wayward off the tee and didn’t sink a putt of any distance.
Maurice won five of the six completed holes on which he had a shot and broke clear around the turn, winning three on the spin to go four up.
Brad won the first, albeit with a bogey, but that lead disappeared straight away and he never regained it.
Indeed, he was behind after the third, missing a six-foot par putt.
Cashman found two bunkers on four but still escaped with a half after Brad missed from inside two feet. The champion was two down after five, driving into water and missing his bogey putt.
Brad had a let-off at six, which he halved after missing from four feet, and won the seventh with a bogey.
But Maurice took a stranglehold on the contest by winning the next three, leaving a birdie putt very close on eight before making successive nett birdies, the second of these with a 12-foot putt.
Sarjantson needed to win 11 and did so, and he looked like cutting the gap to two holes when Maurice’s third splash-landed in water at 12, but a great recovery shot saved the hole. Both missed bogey putts at 13, Cashman’s from no more than a foot, but a nett par at the next left Maurice dormie four after Brad left a 15-footer just short.
And it was all over at 15, where Maurice’s excellent bunker shot applied enough pressure for Brad to miss his five-foot bogey putt.
Sargantson admitted: “I didn’t play my best. Perhaps I tried too hard to hit it further, because you at least have to halve the holes where you are giving away a shot.
“But I struggled with my drives and Maurice hardly ever veered off line.”