Gareth Betts wins Gazette golf crown in Portugal

Gareth Betts receives the trophy from sponsor Ian Wharmby of Blacktax
Gareth Betts receives the trophy from sponsor Ian Wharmby of Blacktax
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Gareth Betts survived a mild dose of the collywobbles to be crowned Gazette/Blacktax Matchplay champion for 2015 in Portugal.

The 28-year-old Fairhaven Golf Club member was in fine form in the early stages of the final against Fleetwood’s Ken Friel at the Sir Henry Cotton Championship course at the Penina Hotel and Golf Resort on the Algarve.

Having qualified for the final four of the prestigious competition for the very first time - and an all-expenses-paid trip to Portugal generously funded by Blacktax taxis and the Airport Transfer Group - the 11-handicapper won four of the opening nine holes against his 54-year-old opponent to lead by two at the turn.

However, with victory seemingly there for the taking, Betts blinked and that was all the tenacious Friel - who was playing off 19 - needed as he squared the match up by winning the 11th and 12th holes.

Having seen a lead disintegrate, lesser players could have crumbled, but Betts soon recovered his composure to take the lead once more on the 14th and wrapped the match up by winning the next two to seal victory by three and two.

His final tee shot of the match, at the par three 16th, illustrated his class as he arrowed the ball on to the green within a few feet of the hole to heap all the pressure on Friel.

The Cleveleys man could not respond this time as he skewed his tee shot to the right and then took another three strokes to land his ball on the green.

That was the cue for Friel to offer his hand of congratulations to the new champion.

Betts’ semi-final victory over the lower-handicapped Roger Baker (7), of St Annes Old Links, followed a similar pattern.

Once again, the Fairhaven player opened up a commanding lead after the first 10 holes and led by four.

But Baker clawed his way back into the match and had a real opportunity to take the contest to the final hole, trailing by just one.

Having seen his semi-final opponent land his tee shot behind a tree, 49-year-old Baker failed to capitalise as he double-hit his chip onto the 17th green to virtually hand the match to Betts.

Betts revealed after his title victory that he found it difficult being the frontrunner and strangely felt much more comfortable when Friel squared up the final with six to play. I just got a bit nervous both days,” said Betts. “It’s just leading, isn’t it? It’s all on you when you’re in the lead.

“If you’re leading by four or whatever, it’s kind of yours to lose and the mindset is to hold on to it.

“I actually preferred it when Ken got it back to level. I much prefer it when the match is neck and neck and the pressure is back on the other player. They then have something to lose rather than just being the chaser.”

Despite suffering a few nervous moments, Betts was thrilled to be the new champion and was pleased with the way he played over the weekend.

“I felt like I played pretty solid,” he said. “There were more good holes than bad holes.

“I was really happy with the way I hit the ball and I’ve been happy with the way I’ve been playing coming up to Portugal.

“The tee shot I hit to win it on the 16th was probably one of the best I hit all weekend.

“I was relieved to see it sail on to the green and it obviously put a lot of pressure on Ken for his tee shot.

“It’s the first big tournament I have won in a long time. I won a few as a junior player.

“But it feels great to win it. Hopefully I can defend it next year - that’s what you have got to aim for.”

Although disappointed to lose the final, just to be out on the golf course is a major achievement for Friel, who was very close to death only a couple of years ago.

The grandad suffered a massive heart attack and was lucky to survive. He has also battled back from a major shoulder injury, sustained after a fall while taking his dog for a walk.

Friel looked like he was in the mood to upset Betts when he brilliantly birdied the opening par four.

After cutting his tee shot down the left and around the corner, Friel landed his second to within two feet of the hole.

On seeing the position of his opponent’s ball on the green, Betts produced a wry smile and muttered, ‘I hope that’s not a sign of things to come’.

The 28-year-old engineer levelled the match on the third despite more Friel heroics to save par after he had initially dumped his tee shot into a dike.

Betts knocked his tee-shot to within 10 feet of the hole and then pumped his fist after sinking his putt.

Friel edged ahead on the next hole by making par, after Betts bogeyed, but the younger man began to turn the screw as he won three of the next fives holes.

The ninth was particularly disappointing for Friel as he failed to sink a putt from six feet, which would have halved the hole after Betts had three-putted.

A great putt by Friel handed him the 11th and he levelled the match on the next hole after Betts found the bunker.

It was the older man’s turn to find the bunker on the 14th hole as Betts edged ahead once more and he moved to the cusp of victory by two-putting the 15th.

“It was a good final,” said Friel. “I thought it was competitive and at times I put him under pressure, but over the two days the best man won.

“It is a dream come true for me just to have qualified for Portugal.

“People can’t believe after what I did with my shoulder that I am still able to play golf.

“With the heart attack and the shoulder, I did not think i would ever be playing golf again, never mind getting to the final in Portugal in what is a fantastic competition.”

Friel had the day before beaten Warren Beardsmore four and three in what was very much a war of attrition.

Fifty-one-year-old Beadsmore, of Poulton, was many people’s favourite heading into the weekend after he had reached the final two years earlier.

On that occasion, he had produced a stirring comeback against Brad Sarjantson only to lose narrowly.

However, Beardsmore never found form against Friel as he won just two holes out of the 18.

“I just did not play well,” Beardsmore said. “Ken played steady and full credit to him.

“I have not played like that in any of the earlier rounds of the competition. I won my matches quite easily, but that is the way it goes sometimes.”

Perhaps the highest-quality match of the weekend was the semi-final between Betts and Baker.

Only two holes out of the 18 were halved and both players made several birdies.

Baker said: “Holes five, six, seven and eight cost me. I played so badly through those holes. It gave me a mountain to climb and Gareth was too steady for me to climb it.”

Despite losing at the last-four stage, Baker admitted the competition had given him great memories.

“It’s a fantastic competition,” he said. “It’s £10 to enter but you get that back in a taxi voucher, so it basically doesn’t cost you anything.

“It gives you the chance to play all of the local courses free of charge and you might end up coming to Portugal on an all-expenses-paid trip for the finals weekend.”