Sunday 18 March 2018

In-tune young generation no longer waste time hitting bum notes

Shane Lowry of Ireland. Photo: Getty Images
Shane Lowry of Ireland. Photo: Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

Spectacular growth in Irish golf facilities through the decade of the 1990s is now delivering remarkable numbers of talented young players. It can be seen in a record handicap limit of plus 0.3 for exempt competitors in the 96th Radisson Blu West of Ireland Championship, starting at Rosses Point on March 30.

"Shane Lowry, the winner of the West in 2008, is a perfect example," said Co Sligo vice-captain Kevin Flanagan. "His club, Esker Hills, didn't exist 25 years ago."

As captain of the men's amateur international team in 2009, Flanagan was in a position to arrange an invitation for Lowry into the Irish Open at Baltray, with an historic outcome. "Apart from greater numbers, we're seeing the benefit of coaching and better all-round facilities for young players," he added.

Entries totalling 257 for this year's West have an average age of only 21 years. Of these, 118 are exempt into Good Friday's stroke-play, while a further eight will come through pre-qualifying the previous Wednesday, where the handicap limit is 2.3.

It's serious stuff which has also been influenced by exposure to tournament golf on television, where aspiring youngsters see players set for life after a few successful years on tour. And nowhere is this influence more marked than in the West.

Which has left champions from an earlier era such as Declan Branigan and Barry Reddan shaking their heads at the seriousness of competitors these days. Putting it another way, they lament the passing of wild nights which gave a special dimension to the notion of handicaps.

Like in the spring of 1936, when Patrick Campbell, the celebrated writer and broadcaster, made a tour of Ireland in a red MG sports car. As an accomplished golfer in his own right, his itinerary included a notable challenge for the West.

Arriving at Rosses Point somewhat low on confidence, Campbell later thought it appropriate to "preserve jealously the remnants of my health" by heading to bed at 9.30pm on the eve of a daunting third-round engagement with the great John Burke. "Downstairs and immediately below me," he reported, "numerous competitors were playing nap, pontoon and rummy. By 10pm I realised they were going to cheer at the conclusion of each hand, so I tried reading for a bit.

"At 11.15, they began to sing. It started quite nicely. Someone had a pleasant and, above all else, soft baritone and he obliged, as I judged, shyly, with 'The Hills of Donegal'. I turned out the light and arranged myself for sleep. At the end of 'The Hills of Donegal' another voice, a slightly brassy tenor, gave his attention to 'The Rose of Tralee'.

"I began to get an inkling of what I was in for; and when a third, and awful, voice began on 'Drinking' I definitely abandoned all thought of rest. Within 20 minutes they had tired of listening in silence to individual members of the troupe, and all sang more or less simultaneously. We passed through 'Daisy,' 'Pack up your Troubles,' 'Where the Mountains of Mourne Sweep Down to the Sea,' 'Rolling Home,' 'My Little Grey Home in the West,' and approximately every other song ever written.

"One ambitious artist began to harmonise, and another noise - not a voice - joined in, unable to restrain itself any longer, though clearly uncertain of its capabilities. As the last notes died away, a faint, green light was appearing in the East. It resembled closely the colour of my own face."

It will come as no surprise that, by his own admission, Campbell "remained in competition with my opponent until the 13th hole, when he had won six more holes than I had." In other words, Burke thrashed him 6 and 5.

Such revelry may be rivalled later today at the launch of the centenary year at Enniscrone GC, where the West of Ireland was transferred from 1997 to 1999 due to problems with the greens at Co Sligo.

Especially memorable was 1999 when Mikko Ilonen, his cropped blond hair shining in the afternoon sun, saluted cheering Finnish colleagues behind Enniscrone's 16th green. He had just gained the distinction of becoming the first continental European winner of an Irish amateur golf title.

As a member of a five-person Finnish squad brought here to sharpen their skills over links terrain, the 19-year-old said afterwards: "I am very pleased with this, my first victory outside Finland." Then the native of Lahti, 100 kilometres north of Helsinki, added with a smile: "You know my name, Ilonen, means 'happy' in Finnish. That is the way I feel."

Before arriving in Ireland, Ilonen had been in Spain, where he was runner-up in the Spanish Amateur Open before going on to France.

And he proceeded to capture the British Amateur title before progressing to a successful career as a European Tour professional with five victories to his credit, including the 2014 Irish Open at Carton House.

He now intends to return to the scene of his triumph on Monday, July 2, before heading on to Ballyliffin for this year's Dubai Duty Free Irish Open. And Enniscrone plan to mark the occasion by making him an honorary life member.

Cathal Mullaney is currently writing a history of Enniscrone GC to be published this summer. Meanwhile, today's ceremonies, which include a vintage car parade, will be headed by the captain Seán Brogan and lady captain Peggy Diamond.

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