GEORGE Saunders became just the second Hampshire player to win the West of England Strokeplay Championship title, although he had to share the spoils with Callum Farr who followed up his Selborne Salver victory last month with another impressive display (writes Andrew Griffin).
Both players carded four-under par scores, but it was Saunders, who had to make all the running on the 18th to make a birdie three that he knew would tie his total with Farr’s after three windy days on the North Devon coast.
Since the competition was founded back in 1968 at England’s oldest golf club at Westward Ho!, only Rowlands Castle’s Darren Wright has taken the honours home to Hampshire – back in 2009. Past winners of the salver include European Tour players Chris Wood, David Horsey, Richard Finch and Peter Baker, as well as top amateurs Peter McEvoy and Gary Wolstenholme.
Saunders, from the same Meon Valley Golf & Country Club as reigning British Amateur Champion Harry Ellis, had been on course for his second round of 71 on Sunday with three holes to play, having shared the 54-hole lead with Dorset’s England junior international, Thomas Plumb.
After a chip-in on the 10th, you sensed another Hampshire triumph was on the cards, especially when Saunders made a great up-and-down from a greenside bunker on the 14th to make par.
But a tired swing on the par-three 16th saw the former England U16 international card a bogey four and he was unable to cash in on the par-five 17th.
So after launching a good drive on the 414-yard home hole, the Hampshire lad was left with a nine-iron from 144 yards – and there was no mistaking his intentions as he rolled in the 16-footer for the three that tied clubhouse leader Farr, who had shot a fine 70 to move two places up the leaderboard in the final round.
It was the culmination of a month of good form for Saunders and vindication of a winter of hard work after he had missed out on a place in the Hampshire team that was crowned English County Champions for the first time in 21 years in North Cornwall, at Trevose GC, in October.
Six months on, victory a few miles along the coast in Devon – even a shared one – looked remote after Saunders had carded a one-over-par 73 in poor weather.
As conditions improved on Saturday, he produced a four-shot improvement with a sparkling 69, jumping from 11th place to a share of second. His round included four birdies and an eagle at the ninth as he bounced back from dropped shots at the second and third, having also made three at the sixth, ranked the hardest hole on the course.
That fine recovery looked to have been wasted as Saunders shot three-over for his first 10 holes in the third round on Sunday morning after a six on the first hole of his back nine.
He said later: “I was one over for the tournament, so I set myself a goal to finish level to at least give myself a chance in the final round.”
That recalibration of his expectations did the trick as he fired four birdies in the space six holes.
He hit his 90-yard approach to three feet on the 11th and made a six-footer for his four on the par-five 13th, before holing from 14 feet on the 14th to get back to level for the round.
He then found the bottom of the cup from 15 feet at the 16th to ensure he would go out with a share of the lead with Plumb, who had fired a best of the week 64 on Saturday
Saunders’ view from the top of the leaderboard was the most impressive yet for the teenager, who finally looks ready to step out of the shadows of Ellis – his mentor and inspiration since he first took up golf aged 10.
Some five years younger than his clubmate, who made his Masters debut in April, Saunders,is not surprisingly, is looking forward to the rest of the season after finishing ninth in the Berkhamsted Trophy and eighth in the Selborne Salver,
As a junior, he picked up Hampshire U13, U14 and U16 titles and won his first Hampshire Order of Merit event – the Delhi Cup at Hockley – two years ago. He finished third on the England Junior Order of Merit last year.
He does not qualify for a place in the Lytham Trophy this weekend, which county team-mate Billy McKenzie will play in, but will compete in the Brabazon Southern Qualifier at Camberley Heath in two weeks to try and earn a spot in the English Strokeplay at Frilford Heath at the end of the month.