Last week’s 72-hole British Universities’ championship was in full swing at Dundonald and Anthony Abrahams, the distinguished president-elect of the English Golf Union, was there to lend support. It is this man’s mission to raise the stature of university golf in the UK and he is making a pretty good fist of it.
The question your correspondent put to Abrahams was whether or not the golfing opportunities being offered at some British universities are nowadays on a par – or nearly on a par – with those in the States.
“Not yet,” he said, although not without a bit of thought. “It’s horses for courses. Some golfers will benefit from going to the States but what we want people to realise is that we have a very competitive scene here in Britain and that the standard is rising all the time.” He pointed to how, in the last of the four 36-hole qualifiers for the universities’ “major,” three-handicappers had been balloted out.
Catriona Matthew, who won last year’s Ricoh Women’s British Open, is just one top golfer to have come through the British system. She spent five years at Stirling University, as did Richie Ramsay, who notched his first European Tour triumph earlier this year in South Africa. Padraig Harrington, to give just another instance of a home-schooled star, studied accountancy in Dublin.
Over lunch at Dundonald, the students were happily prepared to voice their opinions on student golf on either side of the Atlantic.
Claire Starkey is a scratch golfer and one who has been involved in both systems. “Everything was more structured at Georgia State,” she began. “You were told where to go, when to practise and, with the weather they have over there, you couldn’t help but come on. You could say that it was all too much but I loved the experience.
“On the other hand, I’m loving it at the University of Northumbria. The only thing is that you have to work harder to fit everything in, do more for yourself.” (The Northumbria students play at the prestigious Northumberland Club.)
Sweden’s Christina Petersen, another Northumbria student, was less happy with the two years she spent in the States. “A lot depends on the coach you get,” she said. “Where I went, the coach put most of the emphasis on putting and short-game. It may have worked for a lot of players but it didn’t work for me. I wanted to get out on the range and practise what I wanted to practise.”
Ashley Smith, a student in St Andrews, said that she had not been tempted by America because, rightly or wrongly, she felt that a degree obtained from a British university would count for more when she wanted a regular job. In any case, there was nowhere she would rather be based than St Andrews.
Harriet Beasley, from Stirling University, had thought about chasing a US golf scholarship but dropped the idea. What put her off was the fear that she might end up hating the game at the end of four years of daily play. At Stirling, she has individual lessons from the university coach three times a week along with two golf-specific training sessions in the gym. That works for her.
Andrew Shakespear, who cheerfully accepts that everyone is going to make the mistake of calling him William, is among the best of the boys in the British system. He started off studying computer science at Bath University but switched to an easier course at the University of Bournemouth when he decided that he wanted to play on tour.
Everything is coming together nicely for Shakespear. Two weeks ago, he qualified for the EuroPro circuit, while he will tell you that the “Coach and Athlete Development” foundation degree he is about to complete has given him an educational background relevant to what he wants to do.
Most of the golfers at Dundonald felt constrained to point out that time spent at college – regardless of whether it was in the UK or in the US – could make it tougher to get noticed by amateur selectors. “In my case,” said Shakespear, “I don’t know whether they used to think I was out on the piss or whether they thought I was too busy studying. Either way, I never heard from them.”
One of the girls chipped in, “Our amateur officials wouldn’t give a Scooby Doo whether we won this title.”
Abrahams overheard – and disagreed. He pointed, rightly, to how several university girls still out on the links were in the squad for the 2010 Curtis Cup side. He has recently organised for 150 “Advanced Apprenticeship and Sporting Excellence” scholarships – they are each worth £3,000 – to be handed out to those who stay at school to do A Levels. On much the same tack, he also has details at his fingertips of all the bursaries on offer for a golfer’s university years in the UK. These include top awards of £3,000 from the R&A.