RYAN Henley has the chance to make history when he faces Darren Walkley in the 118th Hampshire, Isle of Wight and Channel Islands Amateur Championship at Hockley GC, on Sunday afternoon.
The 45-year-old from Stoneham GC booked his place in the final for a seventh time in 24 years after beating long-time county team-mate Martin Young with an incredible burst of around the turn in their morning semi-final, going six-under for six holes.
Young and Henley both sit tied fifth in the all-time list of winners of the Sloane-Stanley Challenge Cup, which has been awarded since the competition switched to a matchplay event, following two qualifying rounds, back in 1921.
Young had been two-up after two holes thanks to two birdies, and held a slender one-hole advantage at the turn. But the turning point in the match came at the 10th as Young holed from 30 feet for a birdie, only to watch Henley curl one in from five-feet shorter, as they halved the hole in threes.
That seemed to light Henley’s fuse as he then made a two-putt birdie at the par-five 11th to level the match, and after the short 12th was halved in threes, an eagle two for Henley, who drove the green from 280 yards, and saw his lightning-quick downhill putt swing from left to right into the hole at pace for his two.
That put Henley, who has won the Delhi Cup at Hockley six times since 2000, in front for the first time in the match, and a par by Young doubled the advantage at the par-five 4th, having failed to get up-and-down from the right-hand greenside bunker leaving Henley two putts for his fourth birdie of the day.
Young then watched in horror as his15-foot birdie putt lipped out, while Henley converted his wedge approach to five feet to go three-up.
And even when Henley put his tee shot into the bunker on the par-three 16th – with Young looking at a 15-footer for his two – the champion in 2005, 2007 and 2013 hit his sand wedge to a foot.
The last of Young’s three victories came in 2016 at Hayling, but the 53-year-old’s hopes of making it to the final again at Hockley, after his win in 2014, were finally dashed as his birdie effort lipped out again.
That gave Henley, who lost to Young when the 2005 English Mid-Amateur Champion (Over 35s) claimed his first Sloane-Stanley at Army GC 12 years ago, a 3&2 win to book his place in the final against Walkley.
The latter had to overcome US college player Charlie Forster in the other semi-final, and every ounce of his experience playing on Germany’s ProTour against the best up-and-coming Continental players, who are now thriving on the European Tour, was needed before closing out a 2&1 victory.
Forster, who pulled out of last year’s county championship at Stoneham having suffered bad jet lag following his return home from his first season at Southeastern Louisiana, had looked in imperious form over the previous two days.
The former North Hants junior beat Hayling’s Toby Burden – who made three finals in a row starting with his first victory at Army GC in 2019 before losing the last two of them to birdies on the last hole – also made the last four in last year’s English Amateur Championship.
Having beaten Rowlands Castle’s double Brabazon and Carris English Strokeplay champion Darren Wright at the 21st hole in Saturday’s quarter-final, Forster matched Walkley’s birdie at the second, before losing the next three holes in a row.
The recently-crowned Southland Conference Player of the Year – who has signed for Long Beach University in California for his final two years in the States – made a birdie three at the sixth before two mistakes by Walkley cut the deficit to one hole.
Walkley’s birdie two at the short eighth, doubled his advantage before another bogey at the ninth left him one-up at the turn.
Forster then made his third birdie of the morning to get back on terms at the 10th. The see-saw match showed no signs of letting up as Walkley hit back immediately with his fourth birdie to go back to one-up.
He needed a miraculous recovery on the 13th as his drive carried the green and landed by the seventh tee. His wedge made the green, but was some 100 feet from the pin before his putt came up four feet from the pin to earn a par for the half.
Forster was in trouble on the par-five 14th, hitting his three-wood approach out of bounds. Walkley did not opt to play safe however, and hit his two-iron to 30 feet, for a two-putt birdie.
From two-down with four to play, Forster needed to apply some pressure and took driver off the tee on the 340-yard hole. Walkley took an iron to leave a full 99-yard lob wedge into the green, with the hole halved in birdie threes.
Forster – who picked up his first victory in the States back in September – got one hole back as Walkley, winner of the first two Hampshire Order of Merits in 2014 and 2015 before turning pro the following season, made a bogey four at the 16th.
But Forster just missed the green on the 17th from the fairway, and his chip from the fringe came up six feet from the pin. And after Walkley’s birdie effort had lipped out, Forster’s par putt slipped by to give the former Hayling man a 2&1 victory..
Walkley reached the last eight the last time the county championship was held at Hockley. After losing a play-off for the Selborne Salver at Blackmoor back in April, Walkley admitted he was a much happier golf after regaining his amateur status, after struggling with a couple of injuries that hampered his efforts to make a career out on the mini-tours.
Darren said: “Was a I worried that I had given up a three-hole lead on the front nine? No, not all. I might have been in the past, but I was making lots of birdie chances and I knew even at all-square at the turn that were going to be some opportunities to score on the back nine.
“You can see Charlie has got a lot of game – Darren Wright paid him a big compliment saying he hits as long and as straight as any of the big names he played with as a Great Britain and Ireland international.
“Charlie is a really nice kid, and is surrounded by a god family so I am not surprised people are predicting big things for him.”
But there is little doubt that Walkley is an even better player than he was when he played for Hampshire in the 2015 English County Finals, losing the decisive singles match on the Sunday at Wychwood Golf Club, in Cheshire, as Lancashire robbed Hampshire of a first English County Championship in nearly 20 years.
On the form he has shown this weekend, Walkley is certainly knocking on the first-team door very loudly again.