Hayling golfer Toby Burden is Hampshire’s star performer as county fail to reach the English county finals
Hampshire captain Neil Dawson could only take off his cap and applaud as former English Amateur champion Conor Gough fired a 61 to shoot Berks, Bucks and Oxon to the English county cinals.
The new county captain had altered his team at the 11th hour after two looks of the Eaton GC course close to the city centre of Norwich, writes ANDREW GRIFFIN.
And having predicted that birdies would be the order of the day, Gough, who lost his game during the pandemic so much that he missed out on a second Walker Cup appearance against the USA in May, blew away the field with his nine-under par round after lunch.
It meant that lunchtime leaders Surrey were effortlessly overhauled by B.B.&O. who finished on 25-under par – 13 shots ahead of Hampshire who ended up in fifth place.
Hayling’s former EuroPro ace Toby Burden, playing in just his second South East Qualifier, was Hampshire’s leading player, firing two excellent 67s.
A six-under total would normally have seen him in contention for the Peter Benka Trophy – won in the past 10 years by Hampshire’s Tom Robson (2013) and Harry Ellis (2016).
But Gough’s 10-under total after a slow start thanks to a 69, was almost matched by team-mate Ben Loverard, who shot 66, 65.
Sussex’s Nathan Longley (65, 66) also got within a shot of Gough while Hertfordshire’s England junior Jack Bigham shot a 63 after lunch to get to eight-under.
Dawson, who had to watch all his county’s competitive golf get wiped out in 2020 during the pandemic, was keen to win the South East Championship for the first time since 2017.
Hampshire reached the English County Finals a further seven times between 2002 and 2016.
The North Hants GC member gave six-man debuts to county champion Jo Hacker, a top US college golfer, and former European Junior Open winner Joe Buenfeld, who turned 19 last week.
But despite good showings by both, B.B&O. won at a canter.
Dawson said: ‘I can only say well played to B.B.&O. – their three England players were 22-under.
‘It was a short course and after heavy rain overnight the pace of the green changed.
‘Some of my players had plenty of birdie chances in the first round, but could not convert them on the slower greens.
‘Toby Burden shot two 67s and he could easily have gone lower than the guys who were shooting 65s.’
‘When we went out after lunch, we were showing third on the team leaderboard, but Kent and Essex were still to finish, so I was quite surprised to see their scores early in our second round.
‘Four shots behind Surrey looked like a good position given the history of turnarounds in this event.
‘But I then realised we had four teams ahead of us and were eight behind – that was going to be a lot more difficult to overhaul.’
*Having stressed that birdies would be the order of the day when selecting his team less than 24 hours before the first tee time, it was two holes in particular that harmed Hampshire’s chances of a ninth South East crown in the 21st century.
Both debutant Joe Buenfeld and George Saunders made triple bogey sevens on the sixth, while both players made double bogeys on the eighth and ninth respectively.
Captain Dawson said: ‘Those holes cost us 10 shots which was a lot to concede.
‘But George bounced back brilliantly after lunch, and I asked Joe after nine just to get back to level par.
‘He had nasty lip out on the last or he would have been in for 70, which given his experience was a fantastic performance.
‘Our county champion Jo Hacker was equally distraught when he made a double on his last hole in the afternoon.
‘He shot three-under in total, without ever hitting his best stuff. I told him he couldn’t let one hole ruin what was a great first effort in the six-man.’
The county captain had feared the switch to five counting scores out of six in each round – instead of all six – could alter the balance of power in the 11-strong South East Group, traditionally the hardest of the four to win.
In the end, Hampshire’s score was actually slightly better under the new scoring system than it would have been in previous years.
In 2015, Hampshire were down in ninth place after the first round, some nine shots behind the leaders at Hendon, before finishing first with a winning total of 42-over par.
Hampshire’s winning score of 20-under par – when they last hosted the six-man at Stoneham GC in 2010 – had been the county’s lowest total in the competition in the last 20 years.