Opportunity knocks as AIG Irish Close returns to Ballybunion
Event crucial for final Order of Merit standings
Newly crowned Ulster Seniors champion Peter Sheehan and Edward Stack will fly the flag for Ballybunion when the Old Course hosts the AIG Irish Amateur Close Championship for only the sixth time.
The action begins on Saturday with the first of two strokeplay qualifying rounds with the top 64 facing each other in matchplay combat from Monday at the magnificently revamped Co Kerry links.
They will be hoping to join some illustrious winners on the list of "Close" champions at Ballybunion following victories for Muskerry's Jimmy Bruen (1937), Cecil Ewing (1958), Malahide's Ray Kane (1971), Adare Manor's Jackie Harrington (1979) and Warrenpoint's Gary McNeill, now the head professional at Royal Portrush, over Niall Goulding in 1991.
Sheehan and Stack will not be among the favourites this weekend but while Walker Cup hopefuls Mark Power, Caolan Rafferty, Conor Purcell and James Sugrue are not competing - the latter three are recharging for the US Amateur at Pinehurst - the Close will go a long way towards deciding the three players who will win automatic selection for next month's Home Internationals at Lahinch.
The Close is the penultimate counting event for the Bridgestone Order of Merit which will award automatic caps to the top three after the Mullingar Scratch Trophy.
Purcell tops the table with a 22-point advantage over Naas' Robert Brazill while South of Ireland runner-up Keith Egan, who is forced to skip this trip before returning for Mullingar, is clinging to the third automatic berth.
Egan is unavailable this weekend and while he will return in Mullingar, fourth-ranked Colm Campbell from Warrenpoint has a chance to get back into the top three.
Campbell is one of a host of players who can make a move in Ballybunion, where Balbriggan's Robbie Cannon is the defending champion.
Current internationals such as fifth-ranked Ronan Mullarney from Galway or 10th-ranked Tiarnán McLarnon, the 2015 champion, could also snatch an automatic pick.
Kinsale's John Murphy, winner of the St Andrews Links Trophy in 2018, will also be one of the dangermen alongside Douglas' Peter O'Keeffe, the runner-up in last month's North of Ireland final at Portstewart, and Waterford's Eanna Griffin.
South of Ireland winner Sean Desmond is up to 13th in the Order of Merit after his win over Egan at Lahinch, and as he's not playing Mullingar, he knows he must reach the final in Co Kerry to catapult himself directly into the Irish team.
The AIG Irish Amateur Close is the ninth of 10 events in the Bridgestone Order of Merit which concludes at the Sherry Fitzgerald Davitt & Davitt sponsored Mullingar Scratch Trophy from August 10-11.
Bridgestone Order of Merit* - Top Ten (After South of Ireland):
1. Conor Purcell (Portmarnock) 472;
2. Robert Brazill (Naas) 455;
3. Keith Egan (Carton House) 450;
4. Colm Campbell (Warrenpoint) 399;
5. Ronan Mullarney (Galway) 375;
6. Matthew McClean (Malone) 335;
7. Eanna Griffin (Waterford) 318;
8. Marc Boucher (Carton House) 312;
9. Peter O'Keeffe (Douglas) 308;
10. Tiarnan McLarnon (Massereene) 305.