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Beth Coulter and Annabel Wilson seeking home comforts in European Team Championships as Matthew McClean bids for Spanish success



Beth Coulter

Beth Coulter

Beth Coulter

As one of the form amateur golfers on the island, Beth Coulter will likely find herself as one of the key members of the Ireland team at this week's European Ladies' Team Championships at Royal County Down.

The Kirkistown Castle teenager, still just 17, is preparing for her senior bow on the international stage after making a handful of appearances in Girls' squads down the years, and she is hoping that it will end on a positive note on home soil as they take on some of the continent's best up-and-coming stars in Newcastle.

Ireland will be one of 19 countries taking to the first tee at Royal County Down this morning, all with the aim of dethroning defending champions Sweden, who are going for a record fourth successive title spearheaded by the fearsome quartet of Linn Grant, Maja Stark, Ingrid Lindblad and Beatrice Wallin, all of whom are ranked in the top-five in the World Amateur Rankings.

However, Coulter is confident in her own team's ability to get the job done, with the Ireland side containing the likes of Irish Close champion Anna Foster, while Lurgan's Annabel Wilson has returned from college duty in America with UCLA, and she believes playing at home will spur them on rather than adding extra pressure.

"The amount of well wishes we've got is amazing. We're not putting pressure on ourselves, the reality is all we can do is play what's in front of us," says Coulter confidently.

"Obviously it's great that we know the course so well and we've done such great prep beforehand, so we're going out tomorrow with confidence in our strategy. We're really looking forward to it.

"We bounce off each other well, we're making sure it's competitive and in our team meetings we're sharing ideas so we're all prepared. It makes it fun because obviously golf is a one-person sport, but as a team there's a bit of craic. Europeans is long, it's a slog, but when we're helping each other it's really fun."

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As far as form goes, Coulter is riding the crest of a wave after some excellent displays over the past month which saw her claim the Royal Portrush Scratch Cup, finish runner-up to Foster at the Irish Close and reach the knockouts of The Women's Amateur Championship in Scotland.

As such, she will be one to watch this week due to her fine scoring. The secret, she claims, lies in the work she did over lockdown with coach Chris Jelly which has carried over into the new season and has led to her maiden senior representative call-up this week.

"I've had Chris down here for the last couple of weeks and he was looking back over the last couple of weeks and I've played a lot of rounds under par. It's definitely down to Chris and myself working hard over lockdown," explains Coulter, who tees off her first round at 8am today alongside Sweden's Stark and Spain's Carla Tejedo.

"I was very privileged that Kirkistown gave me the opportunity to practice and play over lockdown, from Christmas Eve to Easter, and Chris and I made the most of that. I put in a lot of hard work and so did he, and it's the old cliche of you only get out what you put in, and I feel that's true.

"I don't like looking too far forward, but I am confident that I'm playing well."

The tournament is fairly straightforward, with all 19 teams taking part in two rounds of stroke play today and tomorrow, with the top eight finishers qualifying for the match play, which begins on Thursday and consists of teams playing two matches of foursomes in the morning, followed by five matches of singles.

While Coulter admits playing alongside the heavily fancied Swedes in the stroke play will provide its challenges, she also thinks it will help Ireland to focus on themselves rather than looking outwardly.

"(Sweden) have a presence about them. But it's like that in every sport, isn't it? The best teams have that presence about them," she points out.

"But all we can do is focus on ourselves and go out, shoot scores and put ourselves in a good position. We'll take each shot as it comes individually and see where we finish at the end of the stroke play and then go from there."

Meanwhile, Malone's Matthew McClean is also preparing for his first experience of the European Championships as part of the Ireland team that will compete in the Men's equivalent - which runs using the same format as the Ladies' event - at PGA Catalunya in Spain.

The sole Ulster representative in the squad - which does have an Ulsterman on the staff in team manager John McKinstry (Cairndhu) - McClean has represented Ireland in the Home Internationals, but this will be his bow on the European stage and he admits he's achieved one of his goals for this year by getting the call.

"The top ambition for any amateur player in Ireland is to get away and represent Ireland in any capacity. The first one I was selected for was the Home (Internationals), which is an 11-man team, and then this is about half the squad again, so it's much harder," said McClean.

"It was one of my three goals this year to make this team, and this is why you go away and play all these tournaments, to get picked for these teams.

"It's a great honour but you still have to go out and play good golf. The first step is getting selected for the team but it's relatively meaningless if you don't do anything with it when you're out here. But it's still a nice thing to have that you can say you got picked."

Of course, with current Covid-19 restrictions in place it's not the first experience McClean would have ideally wanted, with limits on what the team can do around the complex. Players from competing countries cannot interact with anyone outside their own team, while practices are strictly scheduled.

However, with that comes an acknowledgment that they are lucky to be playing at all. The Boys and Girls' teams that were due to be playing this week had to withdraw due to quarantine rules and, until they actually arrived in Spain, there was always that doubt that the Men's team might have to do similar.

"Due to the restrictions this year, it's a bit underwhelming at the moment, there isn't quite the same buzz about the place. That isn't ideal, but with everything that's going on, we're very lucky to be out here and playing at all," adds McClean.

"Realistically, we're happy to be here. Once we get out under tournament conditions - and especially if we make it through the stroke play and into the match play - I'm sure it'll be pretty intense."

Similarly to the ladies' side, Sweden will likely be one of the favourites to triumph at PGA Catalunya, spearheaded by World No.3 Ludvig Åberg, while two-time European champion Matthias Schmid will hope to lead Germany to back-to-back titles. For McClean and Ireland, they're keen to take it one day at a time.

"It's my first time playing the Europeans. We're just going to go out and do what we do normally, which is go out and try to shoot a good score," insists the Malone man, who gets his first round under way at 1.20pm with the Netherlands' Jerry Ji and Austria's Maximilian Lechner.

"There are teams missing this year, which has reduced the field a bit, but there are always good teams and good players playing so it'll be hard to win it. But we'll see how it goes."

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