Rachel’s year

At just 15, Rachel Gourley has already built an impressive CV of national success and England caps. Dean Bailey meets her to look back on her breakthrough year and find out what lies ahead

What were you doing when you were 15 years old? I’d bet very few of you were practising six times per week, having already spent 10 years working with one of the North East’s best coaches.

That’s exactly what Rachel Gourley is doing – and her results on the golf course show just how hard she’s been working.

Having turned 15 this summer, Rachel already has three international caps and 3.5 international points on her golfing CV. She’s also one of the lowest-handicapped U16 girls in the country – currently playing off plus-one.

Rachel’s international experience includes a debut against Spain at Woodhall Spa in May along with matches against Switzerland and Ireland. Following her successful start, she is now working with England coaches as part of a trial with the national U18 squad.

“Being selected for the Spain match was a big surprise,” says Rachel. “Once I had that under my belt, I set my sights on being picked for the Switzerland and Ireland matches.

“Going into my first match, I had a few nerves but as I got used to how things work, it felt natural and I started to enjoy it. Now I just prepare the same way as I do for every tournament, going through the processes I’ve learned from being part of the county system and events like the Northern Junior Golf Tour. I’ve grown up playing big events on different courses and that experience has really helped as the events have got bigger this season.”

As well as success as part of the England U16 team, Rachel has shone as an individual. Her personal highlight came at the English Girls Under 16 Open Amateur Championship at Gerrards Cross Golf Club – where she finished in third place. She also reached the last 32 of the Girls Amateur Championship at Panmure Golf Club – losing at the 22nd hole of her round two match.

A national title came at the English Schools Golf Association National Under 16 Girls’ Championship – where she led the field by four shots at Cleckheaton & District Golf Club before representing the schools association against Wales and Scotland.

“Finishing third in the English U16s at Gerrards Cross was the most important week of the year,” says Rachel. “It’s one of the biggest U16 events in the country and the field was the best I’d played against.

“Winning the U16s schools title while finishing second in the U19s was also a big achievement, and getting to play at Panmure having been the last reserve was a great experience too.

“I’ve felt a lot more comfortable in the U16 events than I thought I would. Making the step up to playing U16s while I was still 14 was definitely a good idea – I feel like I can compete in those events now.”

Rachel’s journey to the international stage has been a long one, despite being just 15 years old.

She started working with coach Andrew Nicholson aged just five and counts Andrew, whose pupils include Chris Paisley, as a key factor in her success.

“Andrew has been a huge part of my golf since I was five years old. This year we’ve worked hard on the course, particularly on short game and scoring, having learned so much from the international girls.

“My mam and dad are a huge part of my golf too. They tend to split the travelling, which gives me a nice mix. They have different skills – my dad is a golfer so he’s great when it comes to course planning while my mum is really chilled out. I love travelling with them and they make it possible to play in events all over the country.”

Another key to Rachel’s rise has been the quality of girls’ golf in Northumberland. Led by England Girls internationals Rosie Belsham and Jess Baker, Rachel is part of an incredibly successful Northumberland system which includes fellow U16 internationals Libby Bell and Maggie Whitehead as well as Zara Naughton.

“All the Northumberland girls are doing really well right now and I’m proud to be part of that. We all get along very well – though we’re super competitive on the course.”

Rachel has also spent some of her time this year inspiring the next generation of female golfers as a Girls Golf Rocks ambassador.

“I’ve really enjoyed being an ambassador as part of Sally Hinton-Lewis’ group at Close House,” she adds. “When I was little, I played and practised by myself a lot. That was fine for me, but having a big group makes it fun when you’re just starting out. Sally’s sessions are so much fun and really inspiring. Hopefully the girls will continue in golf – seeing more girls playing would be fantastic.”

Winters in Northumberland are long for every golfer, though Rachel has an England warm weather training camp in early 2020 to look forward to. Apart from that, she’s still practising hard – if you ever visit the driving range at Close House you’ll probably see her there.

“I play golf with the Northumberland girls, but when it comes to practising I’m happy to do my own thing. I think it comes from starting out at Arcot Hall, where I was the only girl.

“I do my technique work with Andrew and then work as hard as I can with one day off each week. I’ve learned a lot from the England sessions at Woodhall Spa this year too. I’ve already learned a lot about decision making and course strategy, and I’m looking forward to going back to more camps.”

That practice is sure to come in handy next season when Rachel is looking to improve her European ranking while completing her GCSEs.

“I’m looking forward to being part of the England system next year,” she says. “In 2020, I’d like to make it into the Girls Home Internationals then follow Rosie and Jess in playing events like the European Championships.

“It’s going to be a long winter of practising but once the season starts, I’ve got a busy calendar of U16 events. I’d like to improve my results from last season and improve from 18th on the European rankings too. I’d also like to play in some European tournaments and the British Girls.”

For now, it’s time to put all of this season’s experience to good use on the driving range and practice green. It’ll not be long until the 2020 season is under way.