Hopefuls eye GUI 'Major' as West awakes in County Sligo
VETERAN West of Ireland championship watchers took a keen interest in the outcome of the Masters because two West 'old boys' commanded plenty of worldwide attention over the weekend.
Just 10 years ago, Rory McIlroy and Jonas Blixt made their debut at Rosses Point in the 2004 West of Ireland; McIlroy was a skinny 14- year-old who was dipping his toe in senior level championship golf, while Blixt, then 19, arrived as a member of a Swedish squad sent by their Federation for links golf experience.
McIlroy belied his youth by getting through the stroke play qualifying and winning two match-play rounds before Stephen Moloney of Castletroy defeated him in round three. Blixt qualified, but was knocked out in the first round of match play by fellow Swede and Tour player Oskar Henningsson.
A decade later, McIlroy is a double Major winner, a multi-millionaire and one of the finest players on the planet – and Blixt isn't too shabby either, as he showed when making a run at the Masters before finishing joint-second.
Clearly, amateur golf is a theatre of dreams and even for those who never climb to the dizzy heights occupied by the likes of McIlroy and Blixt, winning a GUI 'Major' still represents a great achievement.
The 2014 West of Ireland begins today with 18 holes pre-qualifying in which 93 starters compete for a minimum eight places in the first round proper on Good Friday.
Championship organisers originally allocated six spots from pre-qualifying, but will fill withdrawals from the finishing order in today's 18-hole round at County Sligo.
Already last year's beaten finalist Niall Gorey (Palmerstown Stud) and Pat Errity (Druids Glen) have withdrawn, so their spots go to the seventh and eighth in qualifying.
Holder Rory McNamara of Headfort is bidding to become the first champion to retain the West title since Niall Goulding of Portmarnock achieved the feat in 1990 and '91. Other former West winners in the field are Joe Lyons (2007), Rory Leonard (2010), and Harry Diamond (2012).
A host of other GUI winners have entered, including Robbie Cannon (Balbriggan), the reigning Irish Amateur Open champion and Golf Writers' Association of Ireland Amateur of the Year for 2013.
South of Ireland winners are well represented by Co Louth's Simon Ward ('06 and 2013), Portmarnock duo John Greene (2010) and Stephen Walsh (2011), and Pat Murray (Limerick), the 2012 South and '09 Irish Close champ.
Dubliner Eoin Arthurs from Forrest Little has an East of Ireland win on his CV (2008), as does Lucan's Richard O'Donovan (2011). The championship format is 36 holes stroke play (18 holes Friday and Saturday) and then match play begins for the top 64 on Sunday.