TEAM MALTA composed of Nicholas Beck, Ruud Critien, JJ Micallef and Laurens Schulze Doering won its fourth bronze medal in the EGA’s European Team Shield Championship which has been held at the Pravets golf course just outside Sofia in Bulgaria.

The ETSC was actually first held in 2015 at this same place when Malta achieved fifth place. This was followed by two successive bronze placings, then a silver in 2018 and a bronze last year when Malta prevailed over Liechtenstein after having lost to Greece in the semi-final who ended up winning the tournament.

The arrival of COVID19 has had a severe effect on the EGA’s summer golf tournaments with a number being cancelled or postponed. The ETSC was the first one to be played at the announced place and time. Still a number of emerging golf countries, that normally participate in this tournament, had to stay away either because of their government’s travel restrictions or because they were uncertain of the COVID19 measures.

In fact, apart from Malta only Romania, Ukraine, Poland and North Macedonia arrived at Pravets to join Bulgaria. With four players better than scratch, Poland seemed to be, and in fact were, the stronger team in the field. All golf was played off scratch.

Team Malta saw a change in its composition this year with young Laurens replacing Andrew Borg. Andrew has been an excellent contributor to the team’s performance throughout these last five years. This was Lauren’s first experience as a team player, but we had no doubt in his talent.

After a practice round, the tournament started off with an individual stroke play qualifier. The aggregate of three best gross scores out of four determined the team’s position for the next rounds which were on match play format consisting of one foursomes match and two individual matches. The reduced number of participating teams necessitated a change in the match play rounds. A round robin between the teams selected those two teams that made it to the final.

In the qualifying round Team Malta returned the best aggregate score of 220 strokes of the tournament. This was three better than the host team and four than that of Poland. With two +1 rounds from JJ and Laurens and another two +2 rounds from Ruud and Nicholas for an overall +4 (three best scores out of four) – this was possible the team’s most steady and consistent score over the six editions of the championship.

The players showed on the first tee with a positive and centred attitude which stood them well throughout the day’s play. None faltered and they handled themselves admirably despite the sweltering heat. The day’s best individual score was a -4 returned from a home boy. The only level par score was from a Polish player.
The six teams were then split into two groups. Group A consisted of Malta, Poland and Romania. Whilst Group B consisted of Bulgaria, Ukraine and Macedonia. The teams in the group played a round robin match play format over two days. The winners of each group then played against each other for the gold medal on the last day of the championship.

In Group B Ukraine played Macedonia in the morning and, in the afternoon, Macedonia played against Bulgaria. Bulgaria and Ukraine then met on Friday. In Group A, Poland played Romania who then played Malta in the afternoon. Malta and Poland then played against.

The match play matches were three for each game – one foursomes and two individual matches. For all the games, Malta fielded Ruud and Nicholas as the foursomes’ pair, followed by Laurens and then JJ.

With Romania losing all their three matches to Poland, Malta had to return a similar result against Romania as otherwise it would have been very difficult for the final goal to be achieved. After losing heavily against Poland, Romania showed up in a different mood and offered resistance on the opening holes. JJ settled in quickly and won his match 6&5. Playing his first match play for the team, Laurens also managed to hold off his opponent to win 2&1. Nicholas and Ruud halved their match to give Malta a much needed half point. The average handicap for the Romanian team was 3.9 compared to our 1.4.

This placed Malta in a position that they had to secure two points out of three against Poland. Any other lesser result (i.e. two matches won, or one match won and two halved) would have meant that Malta’s chances to make it to the final round were negligible.

As envisaged, Poland – with a team average handicap of +0.8 – were the team to beat. The foursomes’ pair, again made up of Nicholas and Ruud, struggled early on and were four down after 10. They then found their game, but it was too late to shake off their opponents and lost their match 2&1. Following behind, Laurens and JJ – also both down earlier on in their individual matches – brought some hope to the team as they were managing their respective opponents. But putts which refused to drop meant that the players could only bring home two halved matches. This was only enough to put Malta in the match for third place the next day. The opponents were Ukraine. Poland ended up winning the championship when they overcame the host country in the final. For yet another year, Malta lost to the best team in the competition.

Ukraine travelled with a noticeably young men’s team with an average age of 16 years and an average handicap of 2.8. These youngsters played without anxiety – and as the saying goes – they were putting like children fearing nothing. The foursomes pair found themselves three down after three, whilst both individual matches were four down at one point early in the matches. Still being three down after 11, the foursomes started to make their presence felt and managed to go one up on the 17th hole when the made a par to the Ukrainians’ double bogey. A par from each team on the final hole achieved from an up and down from the greenside bunker meant that Malta had its first match won.

Playing behind, Laurens also managed to bring the match to only one down as he finished the 14th. A wayward drive and with his opponent laying comfortable in the middle of the fairway, required Laurens to take on the 15th green with his second shot. An 8-iron flew 230 yards downhill and ended in the rough behind a fast-green sloping heavily away. Laurens’ chip, from the rough, was impossible to control and he went two down from which we could not re-cover.

Bronze thus relied on JJ’s performance who had gone four down after 10. He then went birdie, birdie, par, birdie to go one down and halved both next holes to remain one down with two holes to play. Another birdie on the 17th brought him all square. Both players hit good drives down the 18th. Ukraine approach shot was pin high but, at least, 50 feet far on a massive 18th double green shared with the 9th. JJ’s second shot flew the flag and ended up on the apron behind the green. Ukraine putted first but left his attempt quite short. JJ’s chip left the club face like a bullet train but hit the pin straight on and stopped dead. Ukraine made a valiant effort to down his putt to take the match to extra play off holes, but the ball missed the hole by the slightest of margins. Bronze was thus seized in the most fortunate yet spectacular fashion.

As a final achievement to the week, Laurens was invited to stay and play the Bulgarian Junior Open. This kind invitation was accepted.

The participation to this Championship was possible due to the kind assistance of the Maltese Olympic Committee, SportMalta, The R&A and Bortex Fine Tailoring.

William Beck
3rd August 2020