Harley Smith and Rachel Gourley with their trophies at Walton Heath
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Rachel Gourley was five clear playing the last here on the final day of the Justin Rose Telegraph Junior Championship, but her head was spinning as her dream was collapsing. “Oh God, I’m doing a Jean van de Velde,” the teenager muttered to herself.
Yet while the tragicomic Frenchman failed to retain his big lead on the 18th at Carnoustie in the 1999 Open, Gourley succeeded, remarkably managing to compose herself after every wheel of her challenge had seemingly spiralled off to conjure a 97-yard wedge to seven-feet and then hole the putt. The quadruple-bogey eight saw Gourley beat Lottie Woad by a single shot.
“I was shaking, I couldn’t breathe and I felt sick,” Gourley said after her 73, for a five-under total. “To say this is a relief is an understatement.”
Gourley sensed it was set to be a bizarre day when, on leaving the hotel in the morning, she walked past a copy of The Daily Telegraph and spotted two lads from her school on the front page.
“I am a Newcastle fan and the city is buzzing about the takeover, “ she said. “But I never expected to see that pair celebrating the news as the main picture of the Telegraph. I thought ‘that’s a bit weird, seeing as I’m playing in that newspaper’s tournament’.”
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Events were about to get stranger still. Starting with a three-shot cushion over fellow English junior international Woad, Gourley, the 17-year-old from Arcot Hall Golf Club, looked serene as she went through the first eight holes of the Old Course in two-under. And when Woad bogeyed the ninth, the gap had extended to six.
But then Woad holed her second on the par-four 12th and then birdied the par-five 14th as her playing partner bogeyed and the deficit was only two. “The momentum was with Lottie and I was determined to finish well,” Gourley said. “I managed to make three birdies in succession from the 15th and that gave me that five-shot lead on the last. I didn’t think I’d require every shot of it.”
The anatomy of the meltdown is fascinating, as is the manner in which she reversed what at one stage appeared inevitable humiliation. “I was thinking ‘just hit the fairway’ but I snaphooked it into a bush,” Gourley said. “I took an ‘unplayable’ so was hitting three from the side of the bush.”
At this point, Gourley needed a cool head. However, inside the cranium, the mercury was rising. “I was beginning to lose it,” she said. “I really should have laid up in front of the bunker [guarding the green] but I went for it. I found another bush. I took an unplayable, so was hitting five into the green.”
No matter, find the putting surface, two-putt, pick up the biggest trophy of her career to date and get up the M1 to join in the party on Tyneside. Gourley thinned it. Over the green and out of bounds.
There was a sense of relief Rachel Gourley after she holed the winning putt
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“This is when Van De Velde came into my mind, “ she said. “What did he need? A double-bogey up the 18th for the Claret Jug? I only needed a triple-bogey. And the worst fact was that the Sky Sports cameras were there and they were filming it and I thought ‘oh, no, everybody’s going to see this. It’s going viral’. I was numb.”
Looking on, Woad was also in disbelief. She already knew all about the treacherous nature of that concluding par four. The day previous, the 17-year-old from Farnham had taken a triple-bogey seven when sharing the lead with Gourley. “You don’t have to do too much wrong to get into trouble there,” Woad said, after her 71. Gourley had plenty to do to get herself out the cack. Somehow she managed to squeeze her seventh shot – from just under 100 yards- to seven feet and from there was not about to allow her chance of redemption slip.
“I can’t even remember the putt,” she said, 10 minutes later. “But I do know that I didn’t forget to fist-pump. This means a lot. It’s my best win so far and to do it like that… well I’m always going to remember it aren’t I? I’m disappointed in a sense that I was five ahead and put myself through all that, but I’m more proud of the way I eventually finished it off. I don’t even want to think about what it could have done to me if I’d lost.”
Harley Smith completes junior treble that even evaded Rose
When “FaceTiming” the two champions here yesterday, Justin Rose could only shake his head at the scale of Harley Smith’s victory.
The 16-year-old won the boys’ competition by 13 shots courtesy of a stunning final-round 63 and so completed a seasonal treble that not even the eponymous hero can boast.
Before Smith came along, Rose was the only player to lift the Carris Trophy and McGregor Trophy (the titles handed out to the England Under-18 and Under-16 winners respectively) in the same season. Now Smith, from Essex, has gone one better.
Rose did prevail in this event but not in the same year as his Carris-McGregor double.
“It’s special to have completed that treble, and it’s extra special to win the Justin Rose Telegraph Junior Open at one of my favourite courses,” Smith said. “It’s been a great year for me and to have met Justin has only added to it. He was here Wednesday and has gone over to Las Vegas to play on the PGA Tour, so for him to call us with his congratulations was awesome.”
Smith cruised around Walton Heath, one of his favourite courses
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It says so much about the ambitions of a young golfer that they can admit to being “a little bit upset” after shooting a three-round total of 16-under. But Smith was aware that the course record was 62 and wanted at least a share. He could have had more, missing an eight-footer on the 17th and a five-footer on the 18th.
“I can’t moan at a 63, as its my lowest round ever in competition, but I wish I had got that putt on the last to make it a 10-under round,” he said. “Of course, this will give me huge confidence going forwards.”
Smith has finished school and will concentrate on playing a full amateur schedule in 2022. He will not go to an American college, but is in no rush to turn professional. On this evidence he is ready to compete in the top amateur events and should be in contention for the 2023 Walker Cup at St Andrews. Nothing can be taken for granted in this game, but Smith clearly has the temperament and work ethic to go a long way.
In a tie for second on three-under were Angus Buchanan and Kris Kim, after a 73 and 72 respectively. The latter, a member at Walton Heath, turned 14 only last week and is a big talent. It would be no surprise to see him lifting this trophy in the coming years.