MALTA TAKES BRONZE AT THE EUROPEAN TEAM SHIELD CHAMPIONSHIP
For the fourth year running, Team Malta has been denied a better coloured medal by the team that eventually won the tournament. In 2016, Malta lost to Serbia in the semi-final round and had to fight for bronze. In 2017, Malta lost to Lithuania again in the semi-final round and again got bronze. Last year, Malta proceeded to the final round and lost to Croatia getting silver in the process. This year, Malta lost again at the semi-final stage to Greece that proceeded to win over Cyprus and achieved gold.
The team composed of Nicholas Beck, Andrew Borg, Ruud Critien and JJ Micallef gelled well before and throughout the tournament and with an aggregate (three out of four) score of +17 had the best team score in the stroke play qualifier. Indeed, with a +2, JJ had the best individual score for the tournament and Ruud’s +6 meant that two of our players shot two of the three lowest scores of the day. Malta’s placing meant that they faced Romania (who placed eighth) in the quarter-final round. The other teams making the top placing were Cyprus, Latvia, Greece, Lithuania, Liechtenstein and Hungary. Ukraine, Macedonia and Georgia placed in the bottom positions and could not contest for the medals. Armenia and Luxembourg pulled out of the tournament before it started.
Despite having a stroke play aggregate score of forty shots worse than our players, the Romanian team were not taken lightly for the match play rounds. The foursomes pair composed of Nicholas and Ruud were the first to tee off and quickly asserted themselves over their opponents. Winning all the holes and halving only one in their path, they shook hands on the tenth hole with a 9&8 win and went over to assist their team members who were following them in the individual match play games. By this time, both Andy and JJ were also in very good positions and were soon simultaneously shaking hands with a 4&3 and 5&4 respective win over their opponents. This was the first time that Malta played against Romania in these five editions of this tournament. In the Romanian players, we found warm souls and bonds were quickly established in golf and beyond.
The semi-final round drew Malta with Greece who had won their match over Liechtenstein. We were quite aware of the strength of the Greeks but our team’s win over them two years ago gave us hope that we could achieve another positive result. Nicholas and Ruud rallied to another 4&2 win in the foursomes. The result filtered through to Andy and JJ but it was not to be with the match turning against Malta on the greens. Early in his match, Andy trailed his opponent by three holes despite starting with a birdie. By half-way he had clawed back to only one down but had to succumb to his opponent’s better play to lose the match on the sixteenth hole. This left JJ to make it possible for Malta to proceed to the finals. His match was closely fought but JJ never had the upper hand. Successive putts that did not go in on holes 10, 11 and 12 established Malta’s fate with JJ finally losing the match on hole seventeen.
At this stage of the tournament, our players were disappointed, and one could see it in their eyes. Everyone in Lithuania had placed them the favourites this year and our players made every endeavour to achieve what was being expected from them. I knew how well they had prepared themselves for the tournament and I shared their disappointment and felt their desire to get away to come to terms with the situation and re-group. Later that evening, the team spirit did finally prevail and with smiles back on their faces, our boys were ready to face another day determined to return home with a medal.
Only Liechtenstein remained in their way. Malta had played Liechtenstein three times in this tournament over these five years and only lost in the first encounter. Our players understood that their sociable opponents were eager to change this. We dwelled on the idea of changing the team’s order of play because we knew that Liechtenstein would have probably anticipated this. But, at the end, we decided to retain the previous days’ order because we realised only too well that the loss to Greece was only due to not more than a handful of putts that refused to drop.
On this final day, it was Andy who finished first with a handsome 8&7 win. Andy established himself early in his match with some solid ball striking. Within a few holes he had taken the core out of his opponent’s game until the inevitable happened on the eleventh hole. With JJ following him behind, Andy remained on the course to caddie for his team-mate.
Up ahead, the foursomes were one up after twelve. The pair then almost emulated the eagle they had on the 13th hole the previous day. An excellent drive by Ruud was followed by a pitch, dead online, by Nicholas to win the hole. Another win on the fifteenth put the foursomes’ pair in the enviable position of three up with three to go from which their Liechtenstein opponents were not able to recover. With a result of 3&2, the bronze medal was thus secured as our team had won two of the three matches.
JJ and his opponent received the news as they walked the sixteenth fairway. At this stage of his match, JJ was also three up with three to go. That match had already seen incredible golf played with JJ having made six birdies to his opponent’s four. JJ had every right to request for his match to continue to reflect a win result but, in good sportsmanship, he accepted to halve the match upon his opponent’s request.
The word “opponent” in golf is such a difficult term to use when describing players like those from Liechtenstein and similar countries whom we have met during these last years. It does not really reflect the generally good spirit that prevails throughout. We have met many players and many officials over these last years in this and similar competitions. Comradeship always triumphed above everything else with competitiveness put aside as soon as the final shot is played.
The EGA’s European Team Shield has provided the emerging golf nations with an opportunity to participate and endeavour to be victorious in the European arena. More importantly, it has provided the participating players with the privilege to forge new friendships, experience humbleness in winning and graciousness in defeat. Our players once again did themselves and Malta proud by doing their best and by the way they represented their national colours.
Of course, all this could not have been possible without the EGA’s decision to start this competition five years ago and, in turn, the R&A’s financial assistance towards the EGA’s hosting of this event. Our gratitude extends to our friends at the Lithuanian Golf Federation for hosting the event and for presenting an impeccable golf course. Also to the PGA’s of Europe for providing the professional coaches for this tournament and, in no lesser terms, to the Maltese Olympic Committee and Sport Malta for their financial assistance.
11th August 2019