Team Malta composed of Nicholas Beck, Andy Borg, Ruud Critien, JJ Micallef managed to take silver in the fourth edition of the ETSC organised by the European Golf Association and hosted by the Croatian Golf Federation at the Riverside Golf Club between the 1st and 4th August 2018.

Having just undergone some major works, the golf course is a relatively young parkland course situated around 15 minutes’ drive from Zagreb centre. The par 72 course was designed by Howard Swan and measures 6403 metres from the white championship tees. Water hazards are present in all but one hole; fairways are narrow; and greens contoured to test putts with a Stimpmeter reading averaging 10 throughout the competition. The longest hole on the course is the par 5 eighth at 520 metres and the shortest is the par 3 eleventh at 137 metres. The course’s signature hole is the par 4 sixteenth which is lined with trees on both sides of a narrow fairway, out of bounds on the left and a water hazard on the right. The fourteenth and eighteenth holes at 414 and 441 metres respectively are considered as the toughest holes. Temperatures running in the middle to high 30’s under scorching sun with hardly any wind prevailed throughout the whole week.

The format of the championship was a stroke play qualifier on the first day with the first eight teams proceeding to three match play knockout rounds. In the match play rounds the teams were required to play two singles and one foursomes match with the condition that play continues until the knockout winner is determined. Two wins out of three identified the team that would proceed to the next round and the eventual winner and final placing of the teams. All the championship was played off scratch.

Twelve other countries fielded a men’s team for this fourth edition of the ETSC. These were Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia and Ukraine.

In the stroke play qualifier only seven players out of fifty-two managed to play to par or better. Our own Nicholas teed off Malta’s challenge at 11:00 and returned a +8 eventually placing him tied 22nd of the stroke play leader board. His colleagues came in almost an hour interval behind each other. First Ruud with a +15 (tied 40th overall) followed by JJ with a +6 (tied 15th). At this stage of the stroke play, Malta was looking to place sixth or seventh overall place. But Andy was on a cloud nine. With six birdies on the back holes, he finished three under on the day to place him only one stroke back in the overall leader board and push his team up to third place with a team aggregate of +11. Croatia with an aggregate of +1 led the team qualifiers followed by Greece with a +9.

The other countries making it to the match play rounds were Hungary, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Liechtenstein and Lithuania. Malta’s third place meant that they had to play Cyprus in the quarter finals of the match play knockout. Previous editions sustained the decision for Nick and Ruud to play the foursomes, followed by JJ and Andy in the singles matches.

Despite having a young team, Cyprus were not a pushover. Although never down, Nick and Ruud had to remained composed and to wait until the 17th hole to shake hands for a 2&1 win. Bringing up the rear, Andy found the start difficult and was down after nine holes to George Kalpakas. In between, JJ was having a very tight match with Christopher – the other Kalpakas sibling. The match never wavered more than one-hole difference and remained all square after 17 holes. On the 18th hole, JJ pulled his tee shot short to the left whilst Christopher put his down the middle. A couple of holes behind, Andy had managed to level his match. This left everything on a strict tight balance as both matches could go either way. Until JJ, that is, hit a 235 yard two-iron into the wind stiff on the green causing his opponent to force a shot which landed in water allowing Malta to claim a victory. In great spirit, Andy and George continued to play the last two holes with their match remaining all square giving Malta a 2.5 to 0.5 win over Cyprus.

As Liechtenstein won over Greece; Hungary won over Bulgaria and Croatia over Lithuania the semi-finals drew Croatia vs Hungary and Liechtenstein vs Malta.
Our foursomes pairing as well as order of play was retained from the previous day. In contrast to the first matchday, Andy was first to start walking back to the clubhouse after having seen off his opponent with a 5&4 win. As he walked down the fifteenth, the foursomes’ pair were four up with four holes to go. An errant tee shot by Liechtenstein forced them to drop a ball under penalty which led to Nick and Ruud winning the hole and the match 5&3. JJ struggled all day against one of the better players in the field and eventually lost 2&1. Still with two great wins, Malta had made it to the final round. Their opponents – Croatia – the host country who had beaten Hungary 2 matches to 1.

On the basis never to change a winning horse, the foursomes’ pair as well as the sequence of play were retained for the final matches. Nick and Ruud struggled from the start and just could not get into the swing of things – literally. After a winning streak of five matches from five over the last two editions of the ETSC, they had to bow down to the might of their opponents with a 6&5 loss. This meant that for Malta to win gold both single matches had to be won. Playing again against one of the strongest players in the tournament, JJ went down early from the start and was four down by the first nine holes. He then got his mojo back and rallied with successive birdies to bring the match to only one down. With Andy playing behind, and better as the holes progressed, this gave the team a shimmer of hope. JJ then lost the 14th to get him back to two down which position the Croatian boy defended with straight pars until the 17th to win the match 2&1. Gold for Croatia was thus secured. In the meantime, Andy had gone two up playing the 16th but his effort was in vain and sportsmanship demanded that Andy concedes a draw enabling everyone to return to the clubhouse.

I can vouch that this was a most difficult duel in the sun for our players – not for one round but throughout the five days of golf. Yet again it was wonderful to experience and so great to be part of.

For all of this, we are thankful for the EGA and the Croatian Golf Federation for organising and hosting this event, for the funding received from the R&A and Sport Malta to enable us to participate, for the PGA’s of Europe to provide, through Ian Peek, the professional coaching during the tournament. Our gratitude is also extended in no lesser terms to Nike Golf and Bortex Fine Tailoring who provided the playing kit and official uniforms respectively making our team feel good and look smart throughout the week.

William Beck
10th August 2018