The four finalists who will battle it out for the title of Gazette/Blacktax Matchplay Golf champion 2013 in the Portuguese paradise resort of Vilamoura in just over a fortnight are now known, though only three of them have booked their seats on the plane.
So determined was Lytham Green Drive’s Julian Wilson to make his mark on our prestigious annual tournament, so generously sponsored by Blackpool taxi firm Blacktax, that he wasn’t going to allow his refusal to fly to prevent him from joining other Fylde coast club players in the quest for a dream golfing holiday on the Algarve.
It is there that the semi-finals and final will be contested next month, and Julian will be joining the other three qualifiers on a three-night stay at a five-star luxury hotel, all funded by Blacktax ... though it may take him a little longer to get there than his fellow finalists.
“I suppose I’ll have to start looking at ferry timetables,” said Julian. “I haven’t really thought about how I’ll get there. It’s the first time I’ve entered the tournament and I really didn’t expect to get so far.”
Julian earned his place in Portugal after winning through on last week’s quarter-finals day at Shaw Hill Golf Club in Chorley, where the rain-lashed course was a far cry from what the competitors can expect in Portugal.
Besides Julian, the other players packing their bags are Poulton GC’s Warren Beardsmore and the De Vere Herons Reach duo of Mike Attan and (for the second year running) Brad Sarjantson. In charge of team spirit and fair play in the Argarve will be host/match referee Ian Wharmby of Blacktax.
Mike was involved in the tightest of the quarter-finals, defeating Kevin Clough of Fleetwood two up in a match not decided until the last hole.
However, that was nothing new to the kitchen designer from Penwortham.
“My matches in this tournament have all been close,” Mike explained. “Most of them went to the 18th and one I won on a play-off hole.”
A first-time entrant at the age of 53, 15-handicapper Mike has visited Vilamoura several times but has never played the world-famous Old Course which will stage our Matchplay final.
But he is sure it will pose different challenges to Shaw Hill, adding: “Neither Kevin nor myself played well in the quarter-final but it was down to the conditions. You couldn’t really enjoy the course – you just had to keep your head down and play.”
His clubmate Brad Sarjantson beat another Herons Reach player, Simon Firth, and now aims to go one better than last year, when he was a beaten semi-finalist in Vilamoura.
Now 43 and with a slightly higher handicap than last year (eight), Staining-based Brad hopes to bring his big-match experience to bear in Porgugal.
“Matchplay does bring the best out of me,” he said. “My experience in this tournament may help, though my daughter (Candice) would tell you it’s all down the lucky Smurf she gave me!” The Smurf has been a cheeky charm in Brad’s bag throughout his run to this year’s finals and will join him in Vilamoura, provided it finds its passport.
Brad won an eventful clash with Firth 5&3 as his opponent eagled the fourth, missed a two-footer to move back within one hole and was further hindered by playing the wrong ball at one point.
“We hadn’t played each other before and it’s fair to say we both played like 18-handicappers,” added print company manager Brad. “I’m glad I’m going to Vilamoura again. For a £10 entry fee you can’t beat this tournament.”
First-time finalist Beardsmore is another who knows Vilamoura well, though he is yet to sample the delights of its courses.
“We go the Algarve every year for a family holiday,” said the 49-year-old Poulton resident and project manager in the construction business.
Warren has played for 20 years and has been a regular entrant in the Gazette/Blacktax Matchplay.
And he showed his determination to finally reach the finals by winning the first seven holes of his quarter-final against Paul Kindred of Lytham Green Drive on his way to a six and five victory.
“The start I made enabled me to play more conservatively on the back nine, which was no bad thing in that weather,” said Warren, whose flying start had nothing to do with familiarity with his surroundings.
“I last played Shaw Hill four years ago,” he added. “I’ve been here since ... but only for weddings. But I was out in 38, which is only two over par and really pleasing (especially for a 12-handicapper). It’s a great competition because you get to play different local courses and meet new people.”
Which brings us back to Julian, who found time to share his delight with The Gazette before a serious planning session on Google Maps.
The 44-year-old from St Annes is relatively new to the game, which he only took up two years ago, but he’s no stranger to The Gazette’s sports section. A professional tennis and squash coach at Ribby Hall, Julian recently featured in our pages after winning a county tennis title.
Julian Wilson won an exciting contest 3&2 against James Porter of Fairhaven, who twice came back from two down before Julian sealed victory by taking the 14th, 15th and 16th.
Julian said: “We were the last two out of the draw and neither of us was at our best but it was an excellent match played in the best of spirits.
“I have flown lots of time, but I never enjoyed it and it’s got worse as I’ve got older.
“But I’ve had a good run to reach the finals – I was away in most of the rounds and beat a two-handicapper with a birdie on the last – so I’m determined to be in Vilamoura.”
The other three finalists will join him via a more direct route, as will Ian Wharmby of Blacktax, who presented the losing quarter-finalists with commemorative hipflasks.
Gazette Sport will be there too, so look out for our full coverage three weeks today.