West's elemental test separates men from the boys
Easter time at Rosses Point has 'educated' some real champions, writes Dermot Gilleece
Pádraig Harrington was in far-off Miami last Wednesday, renewing familiarity with Doral's Blue Monster, when details were announced of the forthcoming 88th West of Ireland Championship, under the banner of Radisson Blu. But he was still accorded honourable mention as winner of the title in 1994, the centenary year of Co Sligo GC.
Since then, the West has continued to produce distinguished champions such as Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry, though it has to be said that the Holywood star was remembered with mixed feelings by two locals in particular.
"We took a hiding when he won for the first time," conceded Tom Gavin who runs the 'book' on the West with partner Dominic Rooney. This was in 2005 when, as a 15-year-old, McIlroy became the youngest winner of the title after his father, Gerry, bet €100 each-way on him at odds of 8/1.
According to Harrington, facing the generally brutal challenge of Rosses Point at Eastertime did much to shape him as the player he has become. "It instilled a determination to simply get on with it when things looked especially bleak," he said. "Finding a way to cope has since stood to me in my professional career. That's what the West did for me and I imagine it would have had a similar impact on Shane and Rory."
McIlroy triumphed again in 2006 and Lowry, after winning in 2008, was runner-up to England's David Corsby last year. With so many locals supporting the Offalyman, the occasion prompted feelings reminiscent of the quintessential English actor, Robert Morley, in the movie Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. "The trouble with these international events," bemoaned Morley, "is that they attract so many damned foreigners."
As it happens, there will be quite a sprinkling of visiting players this year, including a German, an Australian and a strong representation from the UK. But Corsby won't be defending, having decided to turn professional.
Meanwhile, things are changing at Rosses Point. My visit coincided with glorious weather and I have never seen the course in better condition, especially the greens which are remarkable for the time of year. And looking towards next year's Home Internationals, director of golf David O'Donovan informed me of plans to extend the overall length of the course by about 85 yards, through new back tees at the first, second, fourth and 18th.
Given that the West has been held at Easter since 1931 and the US Masters starts on the Thursday of the first full week in April, the events frequently overlap. "I remember being in Rosses Point and thinking of Augusta, which we saw on TV," said Harrington. "Then, having become a regular in the Masters since 2000, there are times at Augusta when I wonder how they're getting on at Rosses Point.
"Both events are special because they mark the beginning of a new year, for amateur championships in Ireland and for the game's professional majors. And I have a great affection for both places. I grew to love everything about Rosses Point, like its cosy little pubs and wonderful village atmosphere. Though I wasn't a drinker, I could see the tremendous appeal of spending a wet, cold wintry day sitting in a pub beside an open fire and having a few quiet drinks."
Interestingly, the great English golf scribe, Pat Ward-Thomas, was similarly smitten. Having visited there, he wrote of "the eternal entertainment of Irish stories told in voices swift and liquid as a mountain stream. The miracle of bars that fill, although doors remain firmly locked; the growing enthusiasm for golf . . ."
But he never wrote about the weather, which caused Harrington to shoot 90 in his opening strokeplay round in 1989 and still qualify. "You never knew what you were going to get," he said. "Nowhere in the world have I played in wind as strong or temperatures so cold and while it wasn't good for your golf swing, it shaped you as a competitor.
"It was really intimidating to see the weather building up in the distance, out in the Atlantic. You
knew that when the showers arrived, there was no place to hide, except perhaps in a dip in the dunes.
"I remember hitting shots on the range that would come back over your head. We'd do it on purpose, probably with a nine iron. To be honest, I could no longer do the pretty decent matchplay scores I did in the conditions back then. You found a way of overcoming the wind and getting the ball up and down and holing putts."
Harrington led the qualifiers in 1994, which we had come to expect of him. And as a perennial nearly man, it wasn't a great surprise that he went four down after nine to local favourite Ken Kearney in the final. But after a magnificent rally over the back nine, he took the title by two holes, despite a birdie from Kearney on the formidable 17th.
"With my dad looking on and Tadhg (brother) caddying, I looked destined to lose," he recalled. "But in the end, it became very much the exception to some serious disappointments I had during my amateur career."
West competitors this Easter will see a life-size cut-out of Harrington in the Co Sligo locker-room, advertising FootJoy shoes. It stands as a vivid reminder of where a rather special golfing examination could eventually lead them.