Sports Editor Will Robey reports from Villa Park.Written by Will Robey on 2nd May 2015
Fantastic four show boys how it’s done
IN June of this year the University of Birmingham sent two golf teams to the 2009 World Student Matchplay Championship held in Ingolstadt, Germany
IN June of this year the University of Birmingham sent two golf teams to the 2009 World Student Matchplay Championship held in Ingolstadt, Germany. Both the men's and the women's teams had managed to qualify for the prestigious event which, since its inauguration in 2006, has been an important fixture on any university golf calendar.
The women's team, made up of club captain Lauren Spray, first team captain Lucy Williams, Sian James and Charlotte Hope, had already made history when they brushed aside Cardiff University 4-0 to finish third in the UK qualifiers and book their place in the championship proper, something no all-female team had previously achieved.
However, it was in Germany where they would really excel and, quite unbelievably, go on and win the event, outperforming 25 other all-male and mixed teams representing universities from the UK, Europe and the USA.
Sitting comfortably on brown leather sofas in Urban Village, the four University of Birmingham sports scholars are happy to discuss how the two-day championship unfolded. 'We got to Ingolstadt on Thursday for the practice round and it felt like one of the longest days ever. We had woken up for our flight at 4am' explained Williams, who flies to Brazil next week for the Faldo Series Final.
In order to have a chance of winning the tournament, the team would need to be placed in the top four by the end of Friday's strokeplay singles. And because of a late night indoor rugby game played out by some boisterous members of the all-men teams, the girls didn't manage to catch up on their previous night's lack of sleep. 'We played the Friday on adrenalin,' said Sian, the only player in the team to have competed in a ladies' professional tournament.
Sleep-deprived, but determined to beat their University of Birmingham male counterparts, the girls did not let the wet conditions hinder them and, on a day when low rounds were near impossible, scores of 78, 81 and 85 were enough for them to finish as the top-placed team and earn the right to challenge for victory in the tournament. The girls were subsequently drawn in the semi-finals against fourth-placed University of Warwick.
A strong and fiercely competitive team, Warwick's first two players out were both scratch golfers. Williams and Hope won the first and third matches respectively, but Spray, second out onto the course, lost 5&4 to Nick Brooker. Fortunately for her, she'll soon have the opportunity for personal redemption: 'I've got to play him again in an up-and-coming BUCS game,' she said.
With the team 2-1 up, all the pressure fell upon R&A scholar James to avoid a playoff-inducing tie and secure their passage into the afternoon final. She delivered a 4&3 win, ensuring an emphatic 3-1 overall victory for the 'Brum girls', as they were known amongst the tournament's competitors.
The final would be played against the hosts, the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, but rather than being phased by the prospect of playing yet another all-mens team, the girls were looking forward to the challenge. Third team regular and level one qualified coach Charlotte Hope explained: 'Playing with men throughout my career has really helped my game. You hit it harder when you're up against a guy. You're more determined. There's actually more pressure on the men than there is on us.'
James added that, in what is a traditionally male-dominated sport, golf is seeing a gradual shift towards parity: 'I think ladies' golf is changing quite a bit. It's improving. Governing bodies such as the LGU [Ladies' Golf Union] are really helping to get more young girls involved. And those that do stick with the game end up improving drastically by playing with the men.'
With respect to the Birmingham men's team that had also travelled to Ingolstadt, the girls were keen to point out the great camaraderie between the two groups of players. 'Because we play together in England, we were like a close-knit group. On finding out that we were through to the final they, and the other English universities' men's teams, really got behind us. They had a lot of respect for us because we had qualified first on the Friday,' explained Lauren.
The final, for which the girls had arranged to wear colour co-ordinated ribbons and hair bands, was played in the foursomes format. The Birmingham men's team, in an admirable gesture of support, would be their caddies.
In a searing 30°C heat, Williams and Hope were the first pairing out, whilst James and Spray followed in the second and final match. When the latter two reached the 18th tee at all-square, Williams and Hope had already wrapped up their match 2&1. 'It was close all the way through, but we kicked on from the 15th and won it,' explained Lucy, who hails from Hertfordshire.
In James and Spray's game, the lead up to the final hole of the championship had not been without controversy. On the 16th green, James had been aggressive with a birdie attempt. The ball just slipped by the hole, which left her partner with a tricky six footer. As Spray struck the putt she heard the snap of a camera, courtesy of a German photographer on the fringe of the green. The putt lipped out and the pair found themselves 1 down going into the final two holes.
Her caddy, Chris Jones, made his thoughts clear to the offending photographer. Lauren was, understandably, furious. 'It wasn't the first time it had happened. It'd been going on the whole round. On the 18th tee I had to readdress the ball three times because there were photographers, only a few yards away, moving about and taking photos. It was so inconsiderate.'
On the par five 17th Sian and Lauren showed their fighting spirit to get up and down for an improbable birdie and win the hole. Lauren held her nerve to hold out from ten feet, which gave way to, what promised to be, an exhilarating finish. It turned out, however, to be an anti-climatic final hole, the Erlangen-Nürnberg pairing found trees before conceding the match and the championship.
All four girls were obviously ecstatic with winning the tournament and, four months on, the sweetness of victory is yet to subside. 'When we arrived we didn’t have any expectations. It was the first time the four of us had played together as a team. We honestly thought the Birmingham men's team or perhaps the University of Central Lancashire might win it. But it's a great title; we're the World Student Matchplay champions!' said Lauren.
Four handicapper Charlotte added: 'There was a real feeling of England versus Germany. All the English teams in the competition wanted us to win, but as we walked down the first in the foursomes, there were hoards of supporters surrounding the Germans! It was fantastic to win.'
Lauren, Lucy, Sian and Charlotte were clearly delighted to have beaten a male-dominated field, but they preferred to focus on the way the teams, from across the globe, had enjoyed a brilliantly organised event. 'It wasn't just about playing golf. On the course it was extremely competitive, but off the course we had a great time too.'
The girls celebrated until the early hours and, inevitably, were once more well short of a full night's sleep before their 8 am flight back to Gatwick. As defending champions they will be exempt from qualifying for the 2010 event and cannot wait to defend their title.