Tuesday 15 October 2019

288 competitors, £90 entry fee - How Ireland's James Sugrue secured amateur glory to book place in majors

James Sugrue of Mallow Golf Club, Co. Cork, with the trophy
James Sugrue of Mallow Golf Club, Co. Cork, with the trophy

Dermot Gilleece

In the most glorious manner imaginable, history has repeated itself after a lapse of 70 years. Just as it did in 1949, the British Amateur Championship at Portmarnock produced an Irish winner yesterday in Mallow's James Sugrue, to match the achievement of Belfast's Max McCready on its only other visit to the south of this island.

So, a super-seven has been extended to an irrepressible eight. And the name Sugrue joins an illustrious list comprising Jimmy Bruen (1946 Royal Birkdale), McCready, Joe Carr (1953 Hoylake, 1958 St Andrews, 1960 Royal Portrush), Garth McGimpsey (1985 Royal Dornoch), Michael Hoey (2001 Prestwick), Brian McElhinney (2005 Royal Birkdale) and Alan Dunbar (2012 Royal Troon).

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Small wonder that the Royal and Ancient's promotional poster proclaimed "Legends in the Making", at the scene of battle. And the accompanying picture at the top of his backswing of Ireland's most successful tournament professional, Rory McIlroy, left no doubt as to the nature of the beckoning reward.

Yet there was very much an amateur feel to the place, especially in the haphazard discarding of golf bags along the patio of the clubhouse while eager young players conversed in small groups. Then there were the galleries, sprinkled with familiar faces from all levels of the game on this island.

A total of 288 competitors each paid an entry fee of £90 for the privilege of playing. And without even thinking about a professional future, the winner will have the reward of a place in next month's Open Championship at Royal Portrush, followed by a slot at the Masters at Augusta National next April and the US Open at Winged Foot two months later. Bonuses for an amateur can hardly come any better.

Since the last staging, it soon became clear that Portmarnock had used the intervening time to good effect. In bright, morning sunshine on Thursday, this narrow tongue of shallow duneland never looked better, beautifully groomed for the occasion.

Pupils from St Marnock's enjoying a day out at The Amateur Championship. Photo: Pat Cashman
Pupils from St Marnock's enjoying a day out at The Amateur Championship. Photo: Pat Cashman

An enduring affection for these occasions was characterised by the presence of Castlerea's Rupert Staunton, who topped a distinguished playing career by becoming an R and A selector. He recalled many great battles at Portmarnock, and others, when the fortunes of a fickle game famously smiled on him.

Such a happening occurred in the Interprovincial Championship when a youthful Staunton, opposed by Munster's Vincent Nevin, hit a winning five-iron shot within three feet of the 18th pin, with Ireland selector, Cecil Ewing, sitting on a shooting stick behind the green. "That's good enough for me," said Ewing to a fellow selector, confirming his support for Staunton in the impending international team.

"What Ewing didn't know was that it was one of the worst golf shots I'd ever hit," he admitted. "I bladed it." And he proceeded to laugh heartily at the memory.

Sharply contrasting was the image projected by former West of Ireland champion Rory Leonard, as an imposing leader of a group of schoolchildren parading past the putting green in search of midday goodies. The youngsters were from Pope John Paul II Primary School, down the road in Malahide.

"They've just been given a clinic down on the range by three of the assistant pros from the club," said Leonard, who works as a development officer for the Confederation of Golf in Ireland (CGI). "The Amateur trophy was recently brought into the schools in the area by Hanna Fleming of the British Golf Museum, along with Niall Goulding from Portmarnock, who told them about the event.

"The school this afternoon is St Marnock's here in Portmarnock. And there are two more schools tomorrow (Friday). They're fifth and sixth-class children aged 10 to 12 and the idea is to try and spark in them an interest in golf. Having been told a big event was coming to their area, they can now see what it's all about."

With the poster of McIlroy nearby, it seemed appropriate to remind Leonard of some memorable clashes the pair had at Rosses Point. "It seems like a long time ago now, but I lost to Rory in the semi-finals in 2005, when he won it for the first time," he said. "I played him again in the West in 2007, and he beat me in the last 16. Even then, you just knew he was different."

One of golf's great joys is to tread the same turf where legends of the game once trod. We can but imagine how often such thoughts accompanied players, perhaps of rich talent or modest practitioners, down the opening fairway of the Old Course at St Andrews. Portmarnock has its ghosts of 1949.

Two home players, Muskerry's Mick Power and McCready, reached the last eight on that occasion, and 70 years on, the representation remained the same by Thursday evening, after Sugrue and Ronan Mullarney of Galway GC both came through to fly the flag. Sugrue's progress reminded me of Royal Troon in 2004 when a namesake, Danny Sugrue from Killarney, surprisingly survived final qualifying as a professional for the Open Championship. While waiting anxiously for a 3.26pm tee-time on the Thursday, he had a snack with Fluff Cowan, Jim Furyk's long-time bagman.

"Try to have some fun and you'll play better," was the caddie's advice. Though two 74s weren't good enough to see the Kerryman through to the weekend, Cowan's words would have sat very comfortably with the latest Sugrue in two fascinating battles on Thursday, morning and afternoon.

James Sugrue of Mallow Golf Club is congratulated by supporters after winning the R&A Amateur Championship at Portmarnock. Photo: Sam Barnes
James Sugrue of Mallow Golf Club is congratulated by supporters after winning the R&A Amateur Championship at Portmarnock. Photo: Sam Barnes

Back in 1949, Thursday was also D-day for Patrick Campbell in his remarkable victory over Killarney's Dr Billy O'Sullivan, one of the longest hitters in the field. Having gone to the 18th all-square, Campbell, all 6ft 5ins of him, informed us: "I took out a five iron and hit it high in the air. It felt fairly all right, but the gallery put me straight.

"They let out a great cry of 'Oooooh - I' on a descending scale, indicating beyond doubt that we were up to the ears in the radishes, for the first time in six holes." In fact the Honourable Patrick's ball ended up in the deep pot bunker, left of the green, from which he blindly splashed out to four feet and holed the putt for a birdie four and the match.

This, of course, was a different 18th hole from the one on which Sugrue's Swedish opponent, Christoffer Palsson, conceded defeat on Thursday morning. It was a par-five with the green located directly behind the clubhouse.

Conscious of the relentless demands of golf and the uncertainty of life on tour, you couldn't help wondering what the future might hold for these brave young hearts.

Despite failing to come through the strokeplay qualifying last Monday and Tuesday, some remained at Portmarnock to cheer on surviving colleagues. In the process, they had discovered a new hero in the remarkable Norwegian, Viktor Hovland.

Late afternoon on Thursday and three young players were practising on the putting green with a variety of devices, from a ruler to strategically-positioned tees. I wondered what they thought about Hovland's performance last Sunday in the US Open at Pebble Beach.

Italy's Julien Paltinieri, a freshman at Kent State University in Ohio, became their spokesman. "We watched it late on Sunday night," he admitted sheepishly. "Is it right he shot the lowest amateur score ever?" I confirmed that Hovland's closing 67 was actually that good. And that a four-under-par aggregate of 280 left him 12th behind Gary Woodland.

"It shows that amateur golf is getting better and better every year," said the Italian, who will be 20 this week. "We're looking at very low scores when you see what guys can do on tough courses like this.

"Hovland didn't surprise me, because I played a tournament at his college, Oklahoma State, and I could see then what the standard was."

It's a forbidding prospect. Quite a contrast to a future as a career amateur and the comfort of rich memories to sustain you in your later years.

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