Aisbitt battles back to land Durham crown

The Northern Echo: Teeing off: Brancepeth Castle's Richard Aisbitt tees off on his way to the title. Picture: Keith Taylor Teeing off: Brancepeth Castle's Richard Aisbitt tees off on his way to the title. Picture: Keith Taylor

FOR a golfer whose appearances in the Durham County Championship have been restricted over the years by ongoing back problems, Richard Aisbitt’s troubles never showed on his way to winning the title for a second time.

Eleven years after getting his hands on the 106-year-old substantial piece of silverware, Aisbitt was at his best at Eaglescliffe over the weekend to post a winning five-under 283 total for four rounds in testing conditions.

The difficulties the golfers faced around the course showed by the fact no other golfer among the 71-strong field finished below par at the end of 72 holes.

“I realised on the first day’s play on Saturday that you just had to keep it on the fairways,” said Aisbitt. “The rough was ferocious, I think it was a combination of the warm weather and the wetness from the rain we had. You just had to keep out of the rough to get a good score.

“I played it more safely than I would normally and it paid off. I was really pleased. It looked comfortable in the end but the first round did not go quite to plan.

“My caddie, John Hutchinson, who has been with me for 20 years or so, was also worth two or three shots to me. He is brilliant and on days like we had on Sunday, he’s there drying my clubs, getting out the waterproofs and he’s invaluable.”

Aisbitt started the championship , which he first won in 2003 at South Moor, with a 75, but he recovered to shoot a 71 on the Saturday afternoon before following those up with an impressive 68 and 69 on the Sunday.

The last three rounds proved decisive, with no other man on the course able to repeat the trick. Whickham’s James Simpson did finish under par on his 36 holes on Sunday to finish second, albeit six shots behind Brancepeth Castle’s first Durham champion since Michael Curry in 2006.

“Everything was going well in the first round when I was two under with three to play,” said the 40-year-old. “Then I finished bogey, triple bogey and bogey and I dropped from two under to three over on that stretch. That was a bit of a kicking, but I played really solidly from there on in, even when the rain intervened for a bit on the Sunday.”

A bit of rain was not going to bother Aisbitt after what he has had to endure over the years. He explained: “The County Championship is not something I have played a lot in over the years. I think I worked out I’ve played five times in 20 years mainly because of my back.

“It’s wear and tear. I have been to see a specialist, I’ve had the MRI scan and the painkillers. Apparently when I was younger my bones didn’t grow properly, so I just have to put up with it or have a big operation. It’s not too bad at the minute, so I’m just getting on with it.”

In fact, courtesy of his impressive display at Eaglescliffe, he is heading to qualifying for the Open Championship on June 23. “I have just sent off the forms this week,” he said. “I have been to final qualifying before, so hopefully I can do it again.

“That was in 1998 at Royal Birkdale. I had Miguel Angel Jimenez in the group ahead of me and a young Justin Rose in the group behind. That was the year Rose broke on to the scene and everyone suddenly knew who he was.”

Before his latest Open experience, Aisbitt can take pride in what he achieved last weekend. Since reclaiming amateur status in 2001 – after a few years realising a club pro’s life was not for him – he is determined to make the most of the opportunities that crop up. Fitness permitting, he is not intending to finish just yet.

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