Meet our Portugal-bound finalists in the 2016 Gazette Matchplay

Justin Hatcher, Steven Richardson, Simon Burnett and Brad Sarjantsson with sponsors Phil Barker and Ian Wharmby in the centre
Justin Hatcher, Steven Richardson, Simon Burnett and Brad Sarjantsson with sponsors Phil Barker and Ian Wharmby in the centre
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Three first-time finalists will soon be packing their clubs for Portugal to contest the grand finale of this year’s Gazette Matchplay ... but standing between them and the coveted trophy is our ace of the Algarve.

Heron’s Reach player Brad Sarjantson has won through to Portugal for the fourth time in five years.

The 46-year-old’s handicap has dropped from 10 to six in a season which has seen him win his club’s championship and other tournaments, though his fellow qualifiers can perhaps take encouragement from the fact Brad has won only one of his previous three Gazette Matchplay finals.

He will joined at the luxurious Penina Resort in Portugal by clubmate Justin Hatcher, as well as Simon Burnett of St Annes Old Links and Knott End’s Steve Richardson.

Their three-night stay at the end of the month will be funded by our ever-generous sponsors Blacktax and the Airport Transfer Group, and the semi-finals and finals will be played on Penina’s world-renowned Henry Cotton Championship Course, a frequent home of the Portuguese Open.

Staining-based Brad won the most exciting of last week’s quarter-finals at the Shaw Hill course, near Chorley, where Poulton teenager Simon Blofeld almost denied him another Algarve adventure.

Having won the first two holes, Sarjantson extended his lead to four on the back nine before Blofeld began a courageous comeback. Having won three successive holes, Simon had cut Brad’s lead to one as they approached the 17th only for Sarjantson to make his experience count, taking that hole for a two and one victory.

“I could see it slipping away but I regrouped,” Sarjantson said. “Simon really kicked in and started to play some fantastic golf.”

Having beaten close friend Mark Townsend in the previous round in a match which went to the final hole, Sarjantson hopes these close calls will stand him in good stead in Portugal.

Sarjantson, who manages a St Annes printing business, added: “I had two home ties and three aways and met some great guys.”

Sarjantson is one of three six-handicappers in this year’s finals. Our fourth finalist, Hatcher, plays off five, so a close contest is definitely on the cards.

Hatcher was a more comfortable three and two winner at Shaw Hill, which staged all four quarter-finals last Thursday.

The Blackpool 42-year-old twice fell behind early on against Simon Wright but soon clawed back to take control of the match.

Hatcher, who works in the family reupholstery business in Cleveleys, said: “You have to plot your way around Shaw Hill with all the trees. Long isn’t always good there, and I had to give Simon eight shots.” Having lost one round before the quarters last year, Hatcher is delighted to be visiting Portugal for the first time in his life.

“I haven’t been drawn at home once, so it’s been tough,” he said, “but I’ve mostly drawn lowish handicappers, which I prefer.”

Another three and two winner was Burnett, who can’t wait to return to Portugal, having just returned from a family holiday there.

“I’ve never played Penina, though,” said the 36-year-old from St Annes, who has won through to our finals at the third attempt. “I’m looking forward to going when the temperatures are a little cooler.”

Of his quarter-final win over Matthew Tyson of Heron’s Reach, Burnett added: “I had a solid start, built up a lead and kept it going. Matthew came back a few times, particularly in the last stretch, and I made some nervy puts.

“I had a few close games, including an away tie at my home course Old Links, but I was drawn against some great lads and had good fun.”

Our other finalist, Preesall-based Richardson, has an annual golfing holiday on the Algarve with the River Wyre Golf Society, but he isn’t sure that gives him an advantage.

“We go every April and I think Penina is the only course there I haven’t played,” says Richardson, who is our senior finalist at 58 and works in clothing retail.

He defeated Dave Bamber four and three at Shaw Hill, never looking back after winning the first three holes.

Former Blackpool FC striker Bamber again saw his luck run out at the final hurdle before Portugal; last year he had to pull out of the quarter-finals through injury.

Richardson said: “The slow pace didn’t suit Dave and I got off to a flyer. I’d entered a few times but never got beyond the third round before.”

All four fly out on September 29 and of course we’ll bring you all the action from Penina.

Accompanying them will be tournament sponsors Ian Wharmby of Blacktax and Phil Barker of the Airport Transfer Group. At least now Barker is assured of his place in Portugal: “I miss playing in the tournament but I had no luck – I was only ever drawn at home once,” he said.