The Magic of Match-play

Antony Holmes and Iain Maclardie take us on their journey through the Titleist Match-play 2021.

Making their way through the match-play maze has always brought success for Iain Maclardie and Antony Holmes, in fact, both having fathers who play and encourage them, you could say it’s built into their DNA; so when Antony saw a competition being launched by Titleist on Howdidido early last year it was only natural that he would ring golfing partner and best mate Iain and mention it to him. Iain and AJ go back a long way, all the way to school in fact but it wasn’t until AJ started playing in his twenties that the two became golf partners and very soon found they played well together. Iain had already followed in dad Dave’s footsteps and, as we all know, playing with good players is like free lessons. “Me and dad won the Grouse Foursomes one year,” Iain tells me,” I had the long game, and he had the short game.” And it wasn’t long before AJ got to grips with the game by playing with his dad Alan. Match-play turned out to be natural to them, each winning while playing with their respective dads and things went well for Iain playing with AJ almost from the start. “Playing with your best mate is good,” Iain says, “because we have a laugh. The golf is serious though.” On one particular weekend they won the Famous Grouse Foursomes on the Saturday and The Silecroft Open on the Sunday. The foursomes must have been a magic fit, with them going on to win it four times on the trot. “I like foursomes,” Iain jokes, “You don’t lose as many balls.” Obviously, they were a match made in golfing heaven and a win at The Inshore Rescue at Dunnerholme was soon to follow.

 So, the Titleist Match-play looked right up their street; pairs playing match-play against pairs? Could have been designed for them! But would they get in? The advent of Covid meant fewer numbers being able to enter and they very soon found themselves representing Silecroft in round 1, against two blokes from Brampton, at their place. Iain would be playing off 13 and AJ 7.

“We got away really well and were five up after six, but they fought their way back and it all came down to the last where Iain had a strong par to edge them out. The most memorable thing that happened was on the 200-yard par three. One of their blokes landed on the green and the three of us were nowhere near. I was stuck behind a bunker in some thick stuff, but I was fortunate enough to hit a good chip to within three feet. Their bloke on the green let it get to him and three putted while I sank the putt, and we won the hole. That’s match play. You’ve got to keep your head together. Round two we were drawn at home against a pair from Workington. It was a typical Silecroft day with a strong breeze, which brings out the best in us.” Iain takes up the story: “On the fourth I was nowhere in the running, but Antony was through the back in two. I watched him practice methodically in his routine for the chip. The ball left the face on a true line, bounced, then rolls toward the hole before dropping in! I said, ‘Get in there, fantastic shot.’ Yes, I was relieved because he’d done it again.” “And we were reasonably comfortable winners 3 & 2.” Antony sums up.

 “Round 3 we were home again to a very good couple from Silloth. The wind was up again, and we started well, going two up and never falling behind after that. Then Iain birdied the 16th to seal the deal 3 & 2.” Covid was playing havoc and the organizers decided to go straight from Round 3 to the final, which was eventually played at Bromborough GC on the Wirral in 2021. “It was cancelled a few times,” Antony continues, “and then re-arranged for July this year, the week before the Blackpool trip. It was a scorching hot day of 29 degrees and was won by two local lads, one off + 3 and the other off 20 ‘but should have been lower’, as some folk told us. Four pairs progressed to the National Final and 43 points won it, we were joint fifth with 38 points.” A near miss then but it all served to give them a thirst for more and this year they entered again. “You meet some great blokes, play some good courses and we really are suited to match-play, so we were always going to go again.”

For round one this time around, they were drawn away at Kendal and when they met their opponents they were in for a surprise. Gary [Rambo] Billington “Does actually look like Rambo!” Antony says. “A big burly bloke and a larger-than-life character, Gary took driver out of the rough at one point and he chipped one handed! Playing partner Simeon Barsby’s handicap had only recently gone up from 3 to 5 and he hit a very, very long ball, more than 300 yards off the tee, so we were up against it a lot of the time.” But the Silecroft pair stepped on to the 18th tee one hole up and AJ would par the last for a half and the match. “So, it was back to the jungle for Rambo!” He quips.

 “Round two turned out to be a repeat of the year before as we were drawn at home against a couple of lads from Workington but not the same lads, Simon Frazer was off 15 and Philip Sorfleet off 5. It was a windy day, and they couldn’t handle it or the long grass.” AJ tells me. “But we went one down on the first and we weren’t used to that, we’d always got off to a strong start before, so this was a test of our metal. We got it back on the fourth and it was a tight game from there, but we kept our noses in front all the way and ran out winners by 2 & 1.”

The next round saw them drawn away to a pair from Furness. “The day dawned clear and sunny but with a howling wind,” AJ says. “One of those days when keeping your head together will win it for you. We were matched against a bloke I knew from the yard called Kev Turner who was playing off 11 and his mate Jan Elliott who was off 8. We halved the first; then Kev messed up his chip to the green from the rough into more rough but chipped in from there for a half. So, you never know.” But after taking the lead by winning the third it was time for another memorable moment, or rather several glorious moments from Iain Maclardie. “Iain put the match away with three birdies on the trot on 4,5 & 6. The one on the 6th – a long par four that runs near to the beach – was especially brilliant. The heavy wind was straight into our faces and after a good drive Iain hit a spectacular 4 iron to within eight feet and then sank the putt! We were always well in front after that and by the time we won on the 13th [6 & 5] we were three under par and at the finish were just +1! On their turf too!” And for the second year running they faced just one more hurdle if they were to reach the final.

Standing in their way were two older players from Lancaster, Michael Gornall playing off 5 and Dave Rimmer who was off 9. But it was to be played at Silecroft. “It was a calm beautiful day for a change and all the way round both of them raved about the views and they were astounded to learn that a course this good was maintained by volunteers. We found ourselves one down after the first, but we managed to get back to level on the fourth and from then on it was up and down the whole way. They were telling us about this new football craze they played in ‘Walking Football’ which is for seniors and how clubs like Everton were starting their own. Those lads had played it at Wembley!” Maybe engaging in conversation was part of their tactical plan? I ask. “Well, it is easy to get distracted but we kept our heads again and went on to win by 3 & 2 after a ding-dong battle.” It was off to the Regional Final yet again which would be played at Sand Moor GC near Leeds. This time around they were able to get a practice round in and traveled with Clive Mathie and Neil Robertson the week before. “It’s close to Roundhay Manor where there’s a lot of Red Kites flying and we got to see them, which is quite a sight.”

On the day there were 24 pairs participating and only the first four would go through to the National Final. “It was Stableford 4BB again and we were up against two local players who really made it a test for us. We started well with three pointers on 1,2,3 & 4 but then blobbed 5 before another three pointer on 6. But they kept pace with us the whole way until it came to the last where they had a par and we missed out altogether. So, they beat us by two points, 40 to 38. The winners had an exceptional 48 points and 4th place was 43 so we hadn’t disgraced ourselves – but those blank holes cost us dear!” “We’ve come a long way,” Iain adds, “But we must improve on the Stableford rounds.”

We fall into a discussion about match-play. I’m curious as to how a match-play partnership works during the match. There’s a Native American saying: ‘When two men row a canoe one must sit in the front.’ I mention it. “I don’t think we have a leader,” AJ tells me,” We share ideas and thoughts throughout the match.” I’m also curious about those moments when they fluff something easy, as it seems a key psychological moment in the game.” When we miss a relatively easy shot we just move on and don’t dwell on it.” Another piece of good advice comes from Iain when he tells me: “We haven’t changed the way we play, I always tee off first. Antony has a great short game, which is reflected in his handicap.” It seems one or both of any successful partnership must have a short game. Another piece of good advice comes from Iain when he tells me: “The whole match-play feels intense for me, as you’re not performing just for yourself. There’s pressure every shot and if you hit a good one it relaxes your partner. Antony thrives on pressure!” Expect pressure then. “Me and Antony gel well together too.” So, finding a partner who you get along with sounds crucial!

But what about playing individual match-play? Iain doesn’t play the Marshall Tyson at Silecroft very often, so I ask AJ how he fared in this year’s edition. “I was going well,” he tells me, “Until I met Ian Swarbrick in the semi.” “What went wrong?” I ask. “Nothing went wrong.” he replies and then takes a moment to think before answering. “Ian played out of his skin.” He finally says. “Wasn’t he getting shots?” I ask. “That too and every time he faced a long putt, he either sank it or lagged it. I was gross four over for the round and got comfortably beat, fair play to him. Sometimes you’ve got to recognize that you’ve been beaten fair and square and there was nothing more you could have done about it, so you shake hands, say ‘well played’ and head for the bar.” And perhaps that’s another thing that Iain and Antony are renowned for, they take the notion of fair play seriously. To them sportsmanship is important. It’s that and their achievements that make all of us at Silecroft proud of them.

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