Bunker magic key as brett seals 'most improved' title
CLAREMORRIS Golf Club member Gary Brett took the honours in the final of our Irish Independent/GUI 'Most Improved Golfer' competition held at elegant Carton House last Thursday.
The 26-year-old one handicap finished level on 37 points with scratch handicap Bryan McSweeney of Woodbrook, but won on a countback.
By coincidence, the two category-one players were in the same group, along with Ronan Cooney of Lahinch, and although they didn't know they were going to be the top two battling for the title, Gary and Bryan had a right good competition.
In the end, McSweeney had to be content with topping Category 1.
The other top finishers were:
Category 2: David Brennan of West Waterford with 34 points; Category 3: Keith Sherwin (Bellewstown), also with 34 points; Category 4: Joe Kelly of Westport, with 30 points (beat Conor Hassett of South County on last six).
The event was the climax to our season-long quest to discover the golfers who have lost most shots in all handicap categories.
It has been a fascinating challenge, not only for the 40 golfers -- the top 10 in handicap categories 1-4 -- who qualified for the final, but also for the 6,500 who entered.
GUI president Sean MacMahon paid tribute to the golfers who reached the final for their dedication, saying: "We are delighted to co-sponsor this competition with the Irish Independent, which is such a great supporter of amateur golf in this country."
For the first time, a national competition is available to golfers around Ireland who are putting time and effort into improving their game.
It arose through the partnership of the Golfing Union of Ireland and this newspaper, and the Union's 'GolfNet' computerised handicapping system.
The GUI is the only golfing union in these islands which has the handicaps of its members on a database which allows home and away scores to be recorded at the touch of a button.
And that has allowed us to monitor and present the challenge to the golfers of the country -- how low can you go?
Well, in each category the results were impressive, and last week, the O'Meara Course at Carton House was in prime condition for the elite qualifiers.
The conditions were dry, sunny and with a strong, blustery breeze that kept the competitors guessing about clubbing and distances all day.
The day began with a golf clinic at the impressive GUI National Academy, hosted by national coach Neil Manchip, tutor of Tour pro Shane Lowry and many top amateurs, and Kenny Fahey, assistant teaching professional.
Then it was time for the action.
It was a long round, with competitors studying every line of every putt on the beautifully presented greens and intent on giving it their best.
Next year, pace of play will be strictly monitored, but it was understandable that the finalists wanted to do all they could to make a challenge.
Brett proved the player of the day, and he was spurred on by the contest with McSweeney. The pair each shot level-par 72s, but Gary's birdie-par-birdie-par finish made the difference.
His miracle shot of the day proved decisive. Gary had gone through the green into a plugged lie on the side of a bunker at the back of the 18th.
With one foot in the sand, and one on the bank, he played a fabulous shot to splash out to four feet and holed the putt to save par -- and as it transpired, to win the overall prize.
"That was magic," said magnanimous beaten opponent McSweeney, who had caught fire early in the back nine, scoring three successive birdies from the 10th, but then went bogey, double-bogey.
He recovered his poise to finish par-par-birdie, but that one handicap stroke that Gary had in hand, and his stronger finish, meant that victory went to the man from the west, who revealed he had given up golf for almost six years!
"The tournament was brilliant and the golf course was superb. I really enjoyed everything about it," he said.
"Yes, I had quit golf when I was about 19. I was in college and then working, but about a year ago I was made redundant.
"I decided in this economic climate there's no point in letting it get you down, so I decided I'd give golf a good go. There's a lot worse things you could do in that situation.
"My brother Keith is a PGA professional at Strandhill Golf Club, so he helped me and I started practising. I started the year off 5.1 and now I'm down to 1.1 and I feel I'm playing better than a one handicap.
"It's a great honour and pleasure for me to win this competition. Bryan and I had a great old battle out there.
"I did think that a high handicap would come in with a big score, but I'm just glad that shot on the 18th got me through.
Bryan achieved a long-held ambition when he got down to scratch handicap -- on his 31st birthday.
"I won the club championship in Woodbrook for the first time on my 31st birthday and that brought me down to scratch," he said. "It was a phenomenal day, and it has been very good golfing year for me. I also won the Malahide Scratch Cup which was my first win in a senior Scratch Cup.
"Today I left a few shots behind me, but it's been a great tournament and Gary was a worthy winner."
Bryan's game sharpened up after a series of lessons with pro David Mortimer, who proved he can play as well as teach by winning the recent IPGA Championship.
Congratulations to all who qualified and the lesson is clear -- use the winter to sharpen up your game and see if you can be the GUI's Most Improved Golfer in 12 months' time.
Most Improved Golfer 2010
Winner: Gary Brett (Claremorris) 37 pts.
Category 1: 1 Bryan McSweeney (Woodbrook) 37 pts; 2 Conor McGrogan (Newbridge) 35 pts; 3 Brian Kennedy (South County) 28 pts (last 9).
Category 2: 1 David Brennan (West Waterford) 34 pts; 2 Gary O'Flaherty (Blarney) 32 pts; 3 Keith Kempton (Antrim) 31 pts (last 9).
Category 3: 1 Keith Sherwin (Bellewstown) 34 pts; 2 Dermot McGrath (Dungarvan) 33 pts; 3 Brendan O'Leary (Youghal) 31 pts.
Category 4: 1 Joe Kelly (Westport) 30 pts (last 6); 2 Conor Hassett (South County) 30 pts; 3 Colm Drew (Mountain View) 29 pts.