ANDOVER golfer Craig Neve came up just short in his bid to become the first Test Valley player to win the 36-hole qualifier at the county championship, on Friday.

Neve, the reigning men’s champion at the club, near Basingstoke, shot an excellent joint-best-of-the-morning 68 after a stellar round with the putter.

He was leader in the clubhouse at lunch on two-under par at North Hants GC, the home of Olympic champion Justin Rose, and finished second after round two to qualify for the weekend matchplay knockout.

And the plus-two handicapper, who played for Wiltshire’s Second team when a member at Tidworth GC, then found himself, facing three-time Hampshire, Isle of Wight and Channel Islands Amateur Champion Ryan Henley, from Stoneham.

Neve was in dreamland as he went three-up after four holes against Henley, who has appeared in seven English County Finals for Hampshire since 2002.

Henley has let golf take a back seat since becoming a father. But he was not going to pass up a chance to join the elite band of just four players who have won the 128-year-old championship more than three times.

Henley won the fifth hole, but Neve picked up a win at the ninth, only to then lose three holes in a row to undo his earlier work.

Neve regained the lead at the 14th and doubled it to two at the 15th – only to lose the 16th.

They halved the par five 17th but Henley could not get up-and-down from the bunker by the 18th green to give Neve a memorable two-hole win.

The action comes thick and fast at the county championship, and with less than an hour’s break before his quarter-final clash with Stoneham’s Ryan Moody, there was no let up.

And as the temperatures rose after lunch, Neve found the heat too much against the former mini-tours pro as the Hampshire first-team regular stormed into a four-hole lead after just five.

A birdie three at the seventh gave Neve some hope, but a bogey four at the par three 10th – and a concession at the 11th – left Moody firmly in charge at six-up with just seven to play.

Craig picked up a hole at the 13th when Moody made a rare bogey.

But when the 14th was halved, the reigning Courage Trophy holder was through to his first semi-final, courtesy of a 5&4 win.

A very tired Craig said: “It was my first real experience of top level matchplay – apart from playing for Test Valley in the County Sevens.

“Friday’s qualifier was very tiring, especially playing in the rain trying to keep everything dry – plus mentally it’s taxing, concentrating for 36 holes.

“The second round on Saturday was one too far for me. Ryan is a great player, and it was a fantastic experience.

“But I just made too many mistakes – you can’t give players of Ryan’s calibre holes with only par. Still, to beat a three-time Hampshire champion like Ryan Henley was something to be proud of.”

The 32-year-old, who works as a design engineer for Stannah Stairlifts, was also proud of his first round in the qualifier.

He made five birdies as the rain swept over the heathland at the Fleet golf course, where Justin Rose blossomed as an amateur in the mid-1990s.

Craig rolled in a 20-footer for a two after starting on the 10th hole, getting to the turn in even-par.

He then made a 20-footer for a birdie two at the first, and then made a three from 15-feet at the fourth to make up for a bogey at the par-five third.

Neve was not finished though and sunk a 35-footer at the fifth to get to two-under.

He gave one back with a five at the seventh. But lunch tasted sweeter after making another 20-footer for a three at the ninth.

The qualifying event was won by South Winchester‘s Harvey Denham, who became the youngest winner of the Pechell Salver at just 16, breaking the record set by European Tour player Jack Singh-Brar, from Romsey, who was also 16 when he finished first at the 2013 championship.