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Irish close changes favour big guns


Paul Cutler Photo: Getty Images

Paul Cutler Photo: Getty Images

Paul Cutler Photo: Getty Images

The chances of Alan Dunbar and Paul Cutler, Ireland's top two internationals, winning the Golfsure Irish Close championship at Shannon this week have hugely increased due to the historic change of format.

No match play section and a shortened championship means that an element of chance is taken out of the equation in this 72-hole stroke play event, which will be played from Friday to Sunday.

Paddy Power have reflected that thinking by making West of Ireland champion Cutler 7/1 favourite, with Dunbar, from Graeme McDowell's Rathmore club, the second favourite at 10/1.

The experiment has been undertaken by the GUI for this year and for next year's Close at Royal Portrush for a number of reasons.

Finance and time are two factors, but the subtle shifts in the international calendar had a bearing on the decision to switch the event from a June date.

The Home Internationals moved from September to August, and the usual June dates for the Close were clashing with the last stages of the British Amateur championships.

There was also the time aspect. Practice, 36 holes of stroke play, and six rounds of match play would have required almost a week's commitment.

This is fine for the full-time young amateurs with their sights set on a professional career, but it's not great for the career amateurs who combine golf with employment.

Also, a three-day tournament played over a weekend costs less to run for the GUI than the traditional format.

Some players, including former champion Pat Murray of Limerick who is a career amateur, expressed disappointment when the changes were announced last year, but now they have to just get on with it. An Irish Close title is still to be prized, and for the younger brigade, it is practically a mandatory badge of honour if they are to have any hopes of making the grade as a professional.

Philip Walton, Paul McGinley, Darren Clarke, Gary Murphy, McDowell, Rory McIlroy (twice) and Shane Lowry have all lifted the coveted trophy en route to the paid ranks.

Last year's winner, Dara Lernihan of The Castle, turned pro in the autumn and won't be defending his title.

Jeff Hopkins of Skerries, a British Amateur semi-finalist last year and tied second at the recent Lytham Trophy, could be a threat to Cutler and Dunbar.

The field includes other contenders who, if they hit form, could also give the favourites a run for their money.

Pat Murray, the 2009 Close winner, Leonard -- the 2010 West of Ireland champion and last year's Close runner-up -- and former South of Ireland champions Simon Ward (2006), Darren Crowe ('07), Robbie Cannon ('09) and John Greene (2010) are in that category.

No matter what the format, Shannon GC, established back in 1966, is geared up to provide a true championship test.

Seve Ballesteros was among the stars who graced its famous Pro-Ams in his younger days, as did Nick Faldo, Greg Norman and Sandy Lyle, while Ryder Cup hero Christy O'Connor Jnr has fond memories of his days as the club professional.

The club has also hosted the All-Ireland Cups and Shields finals in 2004, and the European Seniors Team championship in 2008.

Maguire twins to skip Carlow date

INTERNATIONALLY renowned rising stars Leona and Lisa Maguire won't be contesting the Lancome Irish Women's Close championship at Carlow from Saturday to Wednesday.

Twins Leona and Lisa, who took the Portuguese and Spanish Amateur titles respectively earlier this year, are resting after their efforts in the ISPS Handa Ladies Portugal Open.

The next assignment for Leona, eighth in the women's world rankings, and Lisa (20th), will be the St Rule Trophy at St Andrews.

Danielle McVeigh of Royal County Down, who played in the Curtis Cup with the twins, will compete at Carlow and despite the pressure of the exam season, she should make a strong challenge.

Holder Mary Dowling, who beat Leona in last year's final, is geared for a strong defence of her title. Dowling, from New Ross GC, has already won two Scratch Cups.

Woodbrook Scratch Cup winner Karen Delaney, and Louise Mernagh, who took the Zara Bolton Scratch Trophy at Royal Portrush, are also in good form.

The ILGU is set to move the Women's Close from its traditional May date to June in order to avoid clashes with college exams for its younger players.

The first target for the field is to get through the 36-hole stroke-play qualifying, which starts on Saturday. The leading qualifier will win the Leitrim Cup, and then it's into match play for the 32 qualifiers.

Irish Independent