P.P.U.I. - 11/04/2014 - Irish Memories of the 2014 Catalan Open
It is not often when I have touched down in Barcelona that I have been greeted with overcast skies and water falling from the heavens. Yet, this is exactly what happened when I arrived in Barcelona’s EL Prat International Airport last Thursday, April 3rd 2014. My reason for being in the Catalan capital was to partake and immerse myself in the festival of International Pitch & Putt that would be the 2014 Catalan International Pitch & Putt Open. This festival atmosphere was quickly apparent as I bumped into current European Strokeplay Champion Ian Farrelly along with club mates Damian Mullaney and Anthony Kavanagh at the Hertz Car rental depot. The Bellewstown trio’s reason for being in this part of the European mainland was akin to mine. Seasoned international campaigner Jim Judge, now of Erin’s Isle was also in that party along with Peter Reilly. Not for the first time, we were all looking forward to playing once again on the International Pitch & Putt circuit.
It was quite fortuitous meeting Ian & Co. Their plan was to play the nearby ROC 3 course for the afternoon. It turned out to be a very good plan. Within 20 minutes of leaving the airport, we were sitting in the restaurant of the ROC 3 clubhouse having a fine Catalan lunch. The language proved to be a small hindrance but the meal more than made up for it. My Spanish has never been great; my Catalan even less so. We took our time over lunch before we tackled the course. We had been told that it was a fine track. We were not disappointed. It was beautifully laid out; hilly, long and latently treacherous. This tends to be the Catalan way. The weather was not in our favour but it did not dampen our enthusiasm. Naturally, we made a competition of our afternoon. A couple of euros were won or lost, depending on who you were. All in all, an enjoyable afternoon was had by everyone concerned. We parted company for the night. I made my way to my hotel outside Barcelona while Ian and co suitability found theirs.
On Friday, I woke to a refreshingly warm, sunny day. After breakfast, I made my way over the mountains to the coast and the superb course that is Teia. The distance to the course from my hotel was short enough, cc 11 miles, but it was through steep roads with magnificent views and turns that made you drive back on yourself. If I ever needed confirmation I was on Europe’s mainland, these roads were it. It took 40 minutes to complete that journey and at last I had arrived at my destination. Teia! There it was in all its splendour. I just had to breathe it all in. The place was buzzing. The course was full of many of the world’s best players. The clubhouse, bar and restaurant was a mixture of sound as various languages permeated the morning air. You did not have to be a genius to figure out that some important International event was taking place. This was Teia time. Here I was on the course where the first Catalan Open had previously been contested in 2004. We were lucky enough to have an Irish winner on that occasion with the brilliant William Buckley’s impressive win on a rather young and raw Teia course. However, this was also the venue where Ireland lost its invincibility crown when Andorra shocked the Pitch & Putt world by inflicting Ireland’s first ever International defeat with a famous win in the Semi-Final of the 2006 World Team Championships. In a curious sort of way, I had a sense of history just being there. It may only be a decade ago but a lot has happened in those ten years on the international stage. The sport has seen many ups and downs but it has come through all of that and now it stands looking tentatively yet enthusiastically towards an unpredictable future.
During that time, Ireland and its players have continued for the most part to be at the forefront of International Pitch & Putt success. However, the Catalan Open is one event where we have been limited in the success department. We have had only one other winner since 2004 and that was last year when Bruff’s Liam O’Donovan lifted the crown. Liam was here in Teia to defend his title. He was accompanied by a Limerick contingent that consisted of the father and son combinations of Pat and Kieran Earls, Pacelli and Michael Darcy along with Thomas Hanley and Alan Bennis. Of course, we also had the current world champion John Walsh competing along with fellow Cork players Weeshie Murphy, Donal Duggan, Ronan Callanan, Jim and Trevor Ahern. Other players of note were the in-form Eamonn Gibney and fellow Meath competitor Francis Feeley. Regular Catalan entrants Dennis Monaghan and Colin Somers were here once again. Other Irish players were Dermot Wogan, Dermot Smith, Kieron Claffey and the two James Kennedys (Senior and Junior). The rare appearance -in recent times- of multiple International Open winner Alan Hanlon did not go unnoticed. 2004 champion William Buckley was present but unfortunately would not be able to compete at the weekend. Ireland was not shy in having a very strong contingent of players that could challenge for the coveted Catalan title.
Of course, it is not all about the Irish. Three times Catalan Open winner Marcal More, the ever highly consistent Jordi Serra Blanch, the expressive Dani Gimenez, Xavi “Mister Cool” Ponsdomenech and the brilliant Jordi Saborit were among the many excellent players that the host nation had on offer. Their close neighbours Andorra had a number of contenders. Chief among these was the very friendly Pepe Garcia who has played consistently well in International Opens for the best part of a decade. Players from Galicia, Norway, France and Switzerland were on show. We had none other than the irrepressible James Rogerson from Australia. The man from Down Under had in typical fashion set up camp on the Teia course. His tent was situated behind trees right of the first tee. Catalonia was the first stop of his European tour. He will also be playing in the Irish Open, this May. Indeed, he is due in Ireland this week. Who knows where he will set up camp here! In Aussie terms, I suppose you could say he is on some form of a northern hemisphere walkabout. Like or dislike him, one thing is for certain, he is a very fine player. His second place at last year’s World Championship is testament to that.
The Dutch were there in good numbers. In terms of Pitch & Putt philosophy, they are by far our closest neighbours. It was good to see many familiar faces like Rinus and Jeroen Huberts, Renze Hasper and Ed Jansen. The larger than life Patrick Luning was present. Of all the Dutch players, Patrick swings a club extremely similar to players in Ireland. I would venture to say that it is closer to a Munster swing than anything else… if there is such a thing as a Munster swing! From an Irish perspective, Patrick is one of the highest profile Dutch players there is and he is highly respected over here. The Dutch have some fine women players. Most notable among these in Teia were Esther De Schiffart and Herma Kleinglugtenbeld. One new Dutch player that caught my eye was Remon De Groot. He showed great ability and from a Dutch perspective, he performed quite admirably over the weekend.
The traditional Friday practice day proved as usual to be more than just practice. It was about meeting old friends, making new ones, having a go at different languages if you had the courage and mainly just soaking in the atmosphere of what is a major festival of our wonderful sport. After all, we should never forget that International Pitch & Putt was the stuff of dreams twenty years ago. Now, it is a reality and an extremely important one at that. The future development of the game here is inextricably linked to development abroad. We should not be reticent in recognising that fact. One of the wonderful aspects of taking part in an International Open is that you can embrace the two. It was quite clear in Teia that this is what was happening. Every individual present was proud of his/her own nation’s Pitch & Putt heritage whilst immersing themselves in a common International cause. This created a wonderful buzz and an air of excitement that persisted strongly throughout this Championship.
The weather on the Saturday and Sunday was excellent. Just a small digression here! What is important to understand is that Catalan Pitch & Putt is nothing like the sport we play in Ireland. The nearest thing to it here is the wonderful Lough Owel course in Mullingar. Those of us lucky enough to have played in Lough Owel consider it a monster of a course and yet, it is not a patch in size to any of the Catalan courses that I have ever encountered. The format of International Pitch & Putt is in reality a compromise of its two extreme elements, i.e. the shorter Irish version of the game versus the longer Catalan one. Therefore when you play in Catalonia, the longer version of the International game dominates and that comes as no surprise. That is what Irish players should expect every time they travel to this part of the world. As if the difficult Teia course was not hard enough, a stiff breeze made a nuisance of itself on the first’s day play making sure that there were plenty of casualties to the elements.
Here’s the thing! Teia is hilly, almost mountainous in its presentation, especially on the back nine. Every green is tilted in such a fashion that a certain tower in Pisa would have lost its famous lean if it had been placed here. The greens are huge compared to Irish greens, sometimes three to four times bigger than what we know over here. Being on a green did not mean you were near the hole. Then, there is the factor that the average length of every hole in Teia is 64 metres plus. There was no expectation of scores in the low 40s. In fact, any player breaking par would be viewed with admiration by his peers; not necessarily because it was a brilliant score but probably more because a player had faced down the beast that is Teia and came away relatively unscathed. Doing that for one round is one thing, having to do it for three rounds was a challenge of mammoth proportions. For this reason, one has to take off the proverbial hat and pay homage to those that performed so skilfully and wonderfully in their successful battle to tame Teia. I am not going to talk in detail about how players performed.
At this stage, the results have been well broadcasted. Still, one has to mention the brilliant performances of Jordi Saborit, Kieran Earls and Jordi Serra Blanch. 10 under par for three rounds was a magnificent score. The reward for their efforts was to do it all again in a playoff. Concentration levels were stretched further. In the end Jordi Saborit won this coveted title. Kieron Earls took a superb second place. He was Ireland’s best performer on the day and he deserves all the accolades he will receive over the coming days from friends and peers alike. Kieran has finished well up the leader board in a number of these tournaments in recent years. Maybe, it won’t be long before he joins that elite group of Irish International winners with a title of his own. Another Irish player that deserves a special mention is Eamonn Gibney. The Meath man, who has being playing well this year, was highly tipped to do well in Teia and did not disappoint. He finished on the podium with a – 8 score, which included a remarkable Final Round performance. Eamonn started the final day on -6, just two shots behind the overnight leader Pepe Garcia from Andorra. However, the Teia beast bit him badly on the front nine. By the turn, Eamonn had dropped four shots. What followed showed the true courage and character of the man. When he finally drained his birdie putt on the last hole, Eamonn had carded an awesome -6 for his back nine. His podium finish was well merited.
Other Irish performances of note came from Liam O’Donovan. He had defended his title admirably. He closed on -3 for the tournament along with world champion John Walsh and the resurgent Alan Hanlon. Ireland’s European Champion, the ever consistent Ian Farrelly was the only other Irish player to break par. He finished on a respectable -1. The sunny afternoon sky saw the curtains come down on another memorable international open. On reflection, we had not succeeded in winning a third Catalan Open but through Earls and Gibney’s efforts we came so desperately close. There will be other days and the Irish will have other chances. That’s the positive thing about all of this. There is such a vibrancy at International level. It creates a desire for more events of a similar nature. We will be here again; again being Holland, Andorra, Catalonia and of course Ireland. Actually, Ireland is the next stop on the International merry go-round. The time for International Pitch & Putt’s other form of the sport will be upon us in May but for now we can just reflect on the memorable weekend that was Teia.
Thanks to all our Catalan hosts and friends for their superb organisation and the wonderful welcoming spirit that we experienced. Thanks to all our International friends for making this tournament what it should be; a festival of Pitch & Putt. Thanks to all my fellow Irish players for contributing greatly to this wonderful occasion. I will have many long and happy memories of my 2014 trip to this corner of the Mediterranean landscape.
I certainly enjoyed my Teia Time!