Billy No Longer The Kid As McKenzie Sets Sights On Finals
Five years ago Billy McKenzie made his debut for Hampshire in the South East Qualifier at South Beds.
He spent a nervous couple of hours on the back nine during the second round praying he would not make the kind of mistakes that could cost his team-mates a place in the English County Finals.
After being left as the last player out on the course, the Rowlands Castle Colt was glad to have a nine-shot cushion – largely thanks to clubmate Tom Robson’s superb six-under total around the Luton course – meaning his five-over par 76 would still carry Hampshire to their fourth final appearance in seven years.
This weekend, six years on 23-year-old McKenzie travels to Orsett, in Essex, as the Hampshire No. 1 and the current Spanish Amateur Champion.
Now with England and Great Britain and Ireland ambitions, all eyes will be on Billy and his team-mates bidding to qualify for the finals for a fourth year in a row.
Some indifferent form since making his England debut against France back in May, at least ensured he is available to captain Colin Roope to play in the six-man team for a fifth time, only missing out in 2014 when he was reserve.
Essex’s reigning English Amateur champion Todd Clements is with the national team at this week’s European Amateur Championship in Germany.
With Essex missing their star man, McKenzie’s presence is a massive boost to Roope’s bid in his first season in charge to maintain Hampshire’s remarkable record of having been crowned South East Champions eight times since 2002.
The last five players to captain Hampshire have all reached the finals.
Having taken over from Brokenhurst Manor’s Martin Young, who led Hampshire to their first English County Championship title in 21 years, at Trevose, in North Cornwall, back in September, Roope – who left himself out of the eight-man South East League team that beat Sussex earlier this month to maintain Hampshire’s unbeaten record in 2018 – will again sit out and watch on the sidelines.
Behind McKenzie, he has arguably the strongest side on paper of all his predecessors in the 21st century even if they have at times boasted more than one England international in the shape of Sam Hutsby, Darren Wright, Neil Raymond, Scott Gregory and Harry Ellis in the six-man team at the same time.
As well as Young, a veteran of the South East Qualifiers over two decades, Robson is playing for the seventh time since his debut in the 2012 qualifier, which was halted by rain, giving Suffolk a rare win based on the partially completed first round scores.
At least the current heatwave means a repeat of that scenario is very unlikely.
Robson knows what it takes to go low as his winning of the Peter Benka Trophy as the leading player over 36 holes five years ago showed.
And behind him comes Meon Valley’s George Saunders, arguably the most inform player having won the West of England Amateur Championship at Royal North Devon, in April, and finished third in The Berkshire Trophy, at the famous Ascot heathland course, in late June.
Shanklin and Sandown’s Jordan Sundborg is a member of the Stirling team which was crowned Scottish, British and European university champions in 2018 while clubmate Conor Richard, who is at college in the States, warmed up with a brilliant 61 in the Isle of Wight Amateur Championship over the weekend, going on to retain his matchplay title.
Richards has made big strides in his second season at South Carolina’s Lander University and Roope was keen to get the 2015 Hampshire Boys champion into the six-man team the first time.
With North Hants’ Berkhamsted Trophy winner Matt Wilcox unavailable to make the trip around the M25, Roope has been spared one difficult decision on who to leave out with Jersey’s Jason Stokes, who broke the course record in the county championship at Liphook, in June, the other member of the seven-man squad.
McKenzie admitted he had become distracted recently by his desire to break into the top 50 of World Amateur Golf Rankings during the build up to the Brabazon Trophy at Frilford Heath, at the end of May – carrying an exemption into August’s US Amateur, which is being played at Pebble Beach, California’s equivalent to St Andrews which will host the US Open in 2019 to celebrate the iconic Pacific coast club’s centenary.
Now there is just the matter of playing well enough in the coming weeks to earn selection of this summer’s Home Internationals when England take on Scotland, Ireland and hosts Wales at Conwy, in September, with Great Britain and Ireland facing Europe in the St Andrews Trophy, in Finland, at the end of August.
Hampshire will be hot favourites to reach the English County Finals at Suffolk’s Aldeburgh in September, although Essex will be keen to follow Surrey’s capitalising on home advantage to win in 2014, the last time Hampshire did not finish top of the leaderboard
Of the other nine counties contesting the South East title BB&O – Berks.Bucks and Oxfordshire – also have a strong team on paper, while Kent will be keen to complete a rare double, having won the South East Boys Qualifier at Blackmoor last week.