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Hopkins aims to take next step up ladder at Royal Dublin

IN five tumultuous years, the dreams of Dublin teenager Jeff Hopkins have turned from playing World Cup football at centre-half for Ireland to winning a place at September's Walker Cup and following Rory McIlroy to the top in professional golf.

As a rising soccer star with St Kevin's Boys, Hopkins was courted by Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers and West Brom, but high hopes of a career in the English Premier League were scotched by Osgood-Schlatter disease.

So, at age 15 and just 12 months after lifting a club for the first time, Hopkins devoted his full attention to golf -- with spectacular results. Inside two years, his handicap fell from 24 to scratch.

Last summer, Skerries Golf Club member Hopkins made the semi-finals of the British Boys Championship and featured on the Irish team that won the Home Internationals. Then, just before Christmas, he was drafted into the National Senior Squad.

Yet many of his elders still would have smiled and nodded knowingly at the youngster's lofty ambitions.

Until last weekend, that is, when Hopkins (19) finished in a three-way tie for second in exalted company at the Lytham Trophy in Lancashire.

One of those who shared runner-up spot with him last Sunday was England international Tom Lewis (22), the 12/1 joint favourite with recent West of Ireland winner Paul Cutler for the Irish Amateur Open, which opens today at Royal Dublin.

Cutler, Kevin Phelan and Alan Dunbar, defending champion this weekend, are on Ireland's Walker Cup squad, while Ballymena's talented teenager Dermot McElroy is being strongly considered by the GB&I selectors for one of the gaps left by the defection of England's Eddie Pepperell and Laurie Canter to pro golf.

Hopkins is further down the pecking-order. Yet, as the 6' 3" teenager proved when shooting the only sub-par round in a windswept first round of last year's equivalent at the same venue, he's well able to pick his way around a links in a gale.

"I'd a good first round last year, but then faded away," said Hopkins. "I was leading and then reality kicked in -- but I wasn't playing too long and didn't have a lot of experience of situations like that. Being in contention last week and holding it together was good."

With seven Walker Cup panellists in this weekend's field, Hopkins certainly has another great opportunity to add further substance to his dreams.

Irish Independent