McDonagh in flying form ahead of assault on South
THE West's awake after a historic first win in 28 years for the Connacht inter-provincial team, but now the amateur golf focus switches to Lahinch for the 110th South of Ireland championship, which starts today.
Among the Connacht golfers who travel with heads high and morale boosted after their victory at County Sligo on Thursday is Kelan McDonagh of Athlone, last year's runner-up to John Greene of Carlow in the South final.
McDonagh -- who plays out of Athlone but is on a golf scholarship to NUI Maynooth -- is a former Irish Youths champion and is holder of the Mullingar Scratch Cup.
He scored the first albatross of his career at Rosses Point during the inter-pros and along with provincial team-mates Joe Lyons, Michael Durcan and Steffan O'Hara, he returns to individual fare at Lahinch.
Leinster, Ulster and Munster also have the bulk of their teams in action for this championship, which features a major change of format.
Previously this was the only all-match play event on the GUI 'Majors' calendar, but now 36 holes of stroke play qualifying will weed out the 156 starters to 64 who qualify for the match play series on Monday.
It's not a hugely popular move with traditionalists, but the golfers competing -- all of 1.2 handicap or better -- have to grin and bear it.
Holder Greene is one of only four past winners in the field, the others are Robbie Cannon (now Balbriggan but Laytown and Bettystown when he won in 2009), Peter Sheehan (now Ballybunion but Castletroy when he won in 1993) and the veteran Barry Reddan of County Louth, who took the South title 1987.
A regular winner on the amateur seniors circuit in recent years, Reddan retains enough competitive desire and performance level to get into a couple of the regular championships each year.
Pat Murray of Limerick, another very competitive and experienced player, will celebrate his 40th birthday this weekend, and he comes to Lahinch very focused indeed.
Murray, Irish champion in 2009, has played in seven South semi-finals and lost them all, the most recent to eventual winner Greene last year.
A member of the Irish team at the recent European Team championships -- and of the Munster side during the inter-provincials -- he has been challenging for honours all season.
Murray finished joint runner-up in the all-stroke play Irish Close in May and was also joint second in the East of Ireland last June, which was won by Richard O'Donovan of Lucan.
Among the younger brigade is schoolboy Jack Hume of Rathsallagh, who last year completed a remarkable clean sweep of all four provincial Boys titles; a feat last achieved by Raymie Burns back in 1989.
Recent North of Ireland championship runner-up Harry Diamond -- one of Rory McIlroy's closest friends -- comes South hoping to go one better than he did against Patrick McCrudden in the North final.
The Ulster challenge is lessened by the absence of West of Ireland and Irish Close winner Paul Cutler and former Irish Amateur Open champion Alan Dunbar.
However, they have a good excuse -- Cutler, Dunbar, Dermot McElroy of Ballymena and US-based Kevin Phelan of Waterford Castle are preparing for the Irish Open in Killarney next week as they are the players nominated by the GUI to avail of an invitation extended by the PGA European Tour.
A number of players from Australia and the United States are on the entry list, but one man anxiously hoping for a berth was Noel Pyne, a former Lahinch and Ennis captain and president.
Pyne -- who has played 48 consecutive times in the South -- has been on the reserve list, but the new format means 36 fewer places in the draw this year.