Andrew Griffin reports from Weybrook Park..............
Hampshire failed to cash in on home advantage as Essex became the first county to win the South East Colts League Final outright three years in a row at Weybrook Park Golf Club on Sunday (13th October).
The weather conspired against county colts manager Nat Riddett from Shanklin & Sandown, disrupting his practice plans 24 hours before the showdown.
Essex maximised their advantage when the singles were switched to the morning because of more rain being forecast.
The North Division champions came out of the blocks and cashed in on their greater familiarity with the back nine to take a commanding 6-2 lead at lunch.
That meant Hampshire had to win all four foursomes matches just to force a tie – the two teams drew when Hampshire had home advantage four years ago at Rowlands Castle.
But when Osborne’s Chris Hayward, playing with Jersey’s Jason Stokes, five down after nine holes, the game was up, with Essex eventually claiming a 9-3 victory.
The score-line was particularly harsh on Riddett’s side given the season had been a major learning curve for the new manager, who also blooded a handful of new players in the U25 competition.
Six of the 12 matches were decided on the last two holes, but only one of them went the hosts’ way.
Essex, who have faced Hampshire in the final five times in the last six years, arrived a day earlier at the Basingstoke club.
They managed a full days’ practice but when the hosts arrived on Saturday morning, they were only able to get in nine holes on the front nine, before retreating to the clubhouse.
While they desperately tried to get their kit dried out, Hampshire were left to walk the back nine to formulate their game plan.
And with the forecast for Sunday predicting even more rain, the organisers were left with no choice but to swop the format around.
Riddett had no arguments with the switch, but felt it stacked the cards even more in the defending champions’ favour.
Nat said: “It was always going to be better to decide the final by playing the six singles first, in case the weather made play impossible in the afternoon.
“But losing 6-2 left us with an almost impossible task in the foursomes – and ironically, we were really good in the foursomes in the two league matches.
“We have struggled more in the singles and playing foursomes first helps you get into the feel of the match.
“Even if you lose the foursomes 4-0, you are not out of the match. But if you lose the singles heavily playing them first, you are effectively finished.
“It rained so much on Saturday, we could only play the front nine. We walked the back nine, and it is pretty much all in front of you.
“There are no hidden surprises. But Essex clearly had a better feel for it from the way they played in the singles.
“Our guys have not played here in any county events before, so it was not a course we knew very well. But fair play to Essex they had the extra day here and it paid off.
“The singles matches were fairly even at the turn, but they got the better of us on that back nine, and that unfortunately decided the match.
“It rained so hard in the morning, conditions were really tough – the greenkeepers did well to keep the course playable,” added Riddett, who is a greenkeeper at Shanklin & Sandown.
“The conditions were obviously better than forecast, but the organisers were right to make the call they did.”
Having picked six of the team that lost narrowly to Kent at the end of July, Riddett sent out two of his three big guns out at the top of the order in the singles.
But Blackmoor’s Sam Parsons – who played twice for the first-team at the start of the season and was making his last appearance as a colt having turned 25 this year – lost 3&2 to Zach Chegwidden playing first.
Debutant Lewis Scott, from Lee-on-the-Solent, lost 5&4 to North of Ireland Amateur Champion Arron Edwards-Hill in the third match to make it 2-0 to Essex.
The University of North Western Ohio graduate, who finished fourth in the NAIA National Finals, in May, had been four down after seven, and could not find the form that saw him end his US college golf scholarship on a high.
Stoneham’s Owen Grimes – last year’s Hampshire, Isle of Wight and Channel Islands Amateur Champion – won 4&2 against Essex captain Jordan Slater.
Fellow first-team Stokes, from La Moye, romped to a 5&4 win over Cass Steffans to tie up the match.
But Osborne’s Chris Hayward lost on the last to Jack Brown, having been two up after four, and led for 14 holes, to restore the visitors’ lead.
And when Liphook’s Sam Lemon lost the 14th to go five down to Shay McQueen, the tide was turning Essex’s way.
Bishopswood’s Tom Vaughan, appearing in his third Colts final, lost on the last to big-hitting Kish Velani and Hayling’s Josh Smead was beaten 3&2 by Ben Humphrey to make it impossible for Essex to lose.
While Riddett tried to rally his troops over lunch, the rain relented with the sun even making an appearance in the latter stages of the foursomes.
Parsons and Scott at least made a fight of the top match – having been three up against Velani and Slater, they lost the 15th and 16th before hanging on to win by one.
But Hayward and Stokes finally succumbed on the short par three 15th having cut the five-hole deficit to three after the turn.
That point ensured there could not be a draw between the two teams for the second time in five years, and Stokes ended up on the losing side for the first time in three Colts final appearances.
Smead and Lemon were behind from the first and lost 5&4 to Humphreys and Essex first-teamer Edwards-Hill, the plus-four handicapper who was only called in as an 11th replacement for Essex’s regular colts captain.
Grimes and Vaughan were never in front after losing their one-hole advantage on the second, but having been one behind for the last six holes, they had to shake McQueen and Brown’s hand on the last when the 18th was halved in par.
So after the 51st final – and eight years after Hertfordshire’s European Tour winner Matt Wallace played in the team that beat Hampshire in the 2011 final – Essex extended their dominance in Colts golf.
It was their 10th final victory since 2004 and fifth successful title defence since 1996. It leaves them with 14 victories, including three ties, since 1969, five more than Kent and Sussex, with Hampshire, IoW & CI having won it eight times.