England Golf broke new ground last week when for the first time it staged an event in which boys and girls played in the same event for the same trophy.
The new English Under-18 Championship, contested at Farnham Golf Club in Surrey, was the organisation’s latest initiative to break down old barriers and to make the game more inclusive. It was viewed as an outstanding success by all involved.
The event was billed by England Golf chief executive officer Jeremy Tomlinson as a major step in his organisation’s drive to modernise the game at grass-roots level.
“It’s a showcase,” he said ahead of the first ball being struck. “To have a new and innovative championship where the best boys and girls from all over England practise together, tee it up together over three days and go head-to-head for one prize is something England Golf is immensely proud to present.
“Golf is a sport that is modernising, breaking down old barriers and offering fresh opportunities for anyone who loves the game. This championship is another hugely positive step in that direction.”
What made the inaugural English Under-18 Championship even more special was that, thanks to an agreement with Modest Golf Management, the company owned by pop star and golf enthusiast Niall Horan, it offered the leading boy and girl finishers a start on either a Challenge Tour or Ladies European Tour event. That struck a chord with former European Amateur champion and England Golf elite squad member, Alice Hewson.
“That is a real incentive to do well because any time you play with better players it has got to improve your game,” she said.
Hewson knows all about the attractions of mixed golf because just a couple of weeks before the U-18 Championship she had finished third – and as leading woman – in the Scandinavian Mixed event, hosted by Annika Sörenstam and Henrik Stenson, and featuring men from the European Tour and women from the LET. It was a performance which netted her more than €50,000 and resulted in a raft of good publicity for the women’s professional game.
“I’d have loved that opportunity and I think it will be fun for them all,” she said when asked whether she would have liked to have played in a mixed event while she was still in the amateur ranks. “I thoroughly enjoyed my week at the Scandinavian Mixed. It was such an incredible event and such a great opportunity for both the men’s and women’s game. Obviously, we don’t get a chance to play alongside the men all that often, but I can honestly say I enjoyed every minute of it.
“I think it will be great having the Under-18s all playing alongside each other and I’m sure they’ll all have lots of fun.
“It’s also a great chance to learn from each. The biggest thing I learned in Sweden is just how different the men’s and women’s games are. The strength of the men is quite amazing to watch but we are more consistently in the fairways, and I think they noticed that too.”
(Lottie) Woad produced a grandstand finish with an eagle on her last hole to leapfrog Harpenden’s Jack Bigham and move into second place on 8-under 248 ...
The different distances men and women hit the ball pose difficulties for tournament organisers not least to when it comes to positioning the respective tees. England Golf also thought long and hard about how to do the draw. They were concerned a single girl might feel awkward in the company of two boys or that a single boy might feel left out if in the same group as two girls. In the end, they decided to ask the competitors what they wanted and were delighted when it became apparent the boys and girls were universally in favour of mixed groups.
Catering fairly for both sexes can prove problematical for tournament officials, but the over-riding feeling among the competitors at Farnham was that it had been a successful innovation and something that should become a regular feature on the calendar.
Just about the only thing that did not go to plan was the weather, with tournament officials being forced to cut the final round to just 10 holes in order that play finished ahead of an approaching storm.
That was unfortunate but a glance at the leaderboard shows just how successful the event was with two boys and two girls occupying the first four places. Pride of place went to Walsall’s Jenson Forrester who put together rounds of 71, 66, 70 and 38 to finish on 11-under-par 245, three shots ahead of Farnham’s own Lottie Woad.
Woad produced a grandstand finish with an eagle on her last hole to leapfrog Harpenden’s Jack Bigham and move into second place on 8-under 248, while her great friend and rival Maggie Whitehead, from Close House, was fourth on 250.
“It feels amazing, I’m so happy,” said 17-year-old Forrester as he clutched the trophy. “Hopefully, I can take this into school tomorrow. Actually, I’m hoping to get a day off, but it depends on whether or not my mum lets me.
“It was a good event,” he added. “In these times we (boys and girls) should play together more often.”
The last word goes to James Crampton, England Golf’s director of championships, whose job it was to set up a course which favoured neither the boys nor the girls.
“It has been very good,” he said. “The weather today has been a bit disappointing. The information I had was that it was supposed to be chucking it down right now. We make our decisions based on the information we have which is a shame because it looks as if it’s turning out alright. But we wanted to play as many holes as we could.
“I’m delighted with the event. It’s great to see a nice mix in the top 10 which is what we were trying to achieve. It’s also great how all the boys and girls bought into the concept. It has been a great week.”
Top: Jenson Forrester