Sunday 20 October 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'Irish Open amateur fairytales appear to be a thing of the past'

2009 Irish Open Champion Shane Lowry on his return to his local club Esker Hills. Photo: Sportsfile
2009 Irish Open Champion Shane Lowry on his return to his local club Esker Hills. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Gilleece

Ten years after winning it as an amateur, Shane Lowry has become the poster-boy for this year's Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Championship, which takes place at Lahinch in July. He is to be seen throughout the Co Clare resort, promoting the first staging of the event west of the Shannon.

Which brings to mind not only Lowry's remarkable achievement at Co Louth GC in 2009, but the fact that it is unlikely to be repeated in the immediate future.

When the Irish Open became part of the Rolex Series in 2017, the plug was pulled by the European Tour on invitations to the country's elite amateurs.

Granted, they could still come through the qualifying process for the event, but with current summer schedules so busy, it is unlikely they'll try. A tradition which became a feature of the national championship on its revival by Carrolls in 1975, was formally terminated two years ago in a letter from the European Tour to the Golfing Union of Ireland.

As a director of the European Tour, Paul McGinley feels somewhat conflicted on the issue, not least because of the fond memories he retains of having played in the Irish Open on an amateur invitation in 1990.

"I remember it very well," said McGinley at Lahinch where he will host the event. "We had high winds at Portmarnock and I played with Hugh Baiocchi. And I made the cut."

Another Irish amateur to make the cut on that occasion was Darren Clarke. Indeed, both of them performed admirably, with McGinley matching the scores of his South African playing partner over the opening two rounds.

"It was great to be able to compare myself against the pros, that's for sure," he added.

He joined quite a number who have savoured the experience. Going back to its inception in 1927, the Irish Open had a special prize for the leading amateur, which was claimed by such notable local challengers as JD MacCormack, John Burke and JC Brown, before South Africa's Bobby Locke, then on a tour of Europe, took the award at Royal Dublin in 1936.

Jimmy Bruen was famously leading amateur at Royal Co Down in 1939 and Joe Carr won the award on three occasions before the event was discontinued after the 1953 staging. Then, early in the Carrolls era, Ronan Rafferty was to make a formidable impact.

As a 15-year-old, Rafferty had the effrontery to beat a professional field in pre-qualifying at Royal Dublin in 1979. His effort the following year, however, was even more notable. Because of rather unkind scheduling, the final of the 1980 Irish Close Championship was played at Royal Co Down on Wednesday, August 14, the eve of the Irish Open.

Which meant that a triumphant Rafferty, now 16, headed for Portmarnock without a practice round and still managed to card rounds of 75, 72, 72, 80 for a share of 59th place. It sealed the amateur award, five strokes clear of his great 18-year-old rival, Philip Walton, who also did remarkably well in completing all four rounds.

Incidentally, the runner-up in the Close final that year was Michael Bannon, who turned professional six months later and has since gained distinction as coach to Rory McIlroy.

"I can appreciate the impact that amateurs have made over the years, but one of the main objectives of Keith Pelley [European Tour CEO] is getting starts for guys with Tour cards," said McGinley. "And we should remember that without the European Tour, there would be no Irish Open."

Still, he added: "Though it's no longer realistic to be looking for four amateur slots, if you suggested that the Irish Close champion should be exempt into the Irish Open, I'd agree with that. Indeed, I wouldn't be raising my hand in protest if it were suggested to have two amateurs in every national open, but I believe the Close champion would be the most realistic aspiration."

Interestingly, McGinley believes that Lahinch was pivotal in shaping his golfing career.

"Looking back, I can see that winning the 1991 South of Ireland effectively got me a place in the Walker Cup team at Portmarnock later that year," he said. "And the fact is that if I hadn't made the team, I wouldn't have thought myself good enough to turn professional. It kind of gave me the validation to try for the Tour School."

He continued: "The amateur scene was very different back then. There was no chance for Pádraig [Harrington], myself or even Darren [Clarke] to play amateur golf overseas, which is commonplace these days. In fact, the whole dynamic of being an elite amateur has changed, even since Shane's win at Baltray."

Since that breakthrough, the most notable amateur performance was at Killarney in 2011 when Paul Cutler carded sparkling rounds of 69, 67, 71, 72 for a five-under-par aggregate of 279 and a share of 21st place behind the champion, Simon Dyson. The stand-out performance by an Irish amateur prior to that was in 1988 at Portmarnock, where Eoghan O'Connell, who now lives in Florida, had an aggregate of 289 to be tied 15th behind Ian Woosnam and a stroke ahead of US Open champion Curtis Strange and the reigning US Masters champion Sandy Lyle.

Back in mid-May 2009, there was the suspicion of something special in the air, other than dark clouds and fresh winds. Christy O'Connor Snr had confided to me: "Something big is happening, outside the club altogether. That's as far as I can go."

All was revealed within 24 hours with the official announcement at Baltray of his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame. "Back in 1950, I saw the Australian Ossie Pickworth winning the Irish Open title at Royal Dublin," he recalled. "I was Bob Wallace's assistant in Galway at the time and I travelled to see Dai Rees, Norman von Nida and all the other great players."

By the Sunday evening, there was an outcome not even the great Christy could have imagined. An amateur had done the unthinkable, perhaps for the last time.

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