Kilkenny might have relinquished their All Ireland hurling title but the pain of Sunday will ease considerably for Paul O’Hara if he can come through to win the South of Ireland Amateur Open at storied Lahinch today.
The 34-year old, who limits his top flight golf to “a couple of scratch cups” and the annual pilgrimage to “the South”, beat Warrenpoint’s Stephen Coulter 2 and 1 before dispatching former international Nicky Grant of Knock 3 and 2 to set up a semi-final showdown with 20-year old Queens University student Ryan McKinstry at the magnificently prepared County Clare links today.
If he wins, he will take on 19-year old Alex Gleeson of Castle or 2006 champion Simon Ward of County Louth in the final and has no problem admitting that winning the title would be beyond his “wildest dreams.”
“This is rarified air,” he said after playing steady golf to beat an exhausted Grant, who won the Interprovincial Championship with Ulster just last week. “This is unbelievable. I always knew I could play but to keep your head in this company and just believe in yourself is what is needed.”
A “service rep” for Heineken, his day job is all about quality control and he has certainly showed plenty of it this week, building on a recent victory in the Kilkenny Senior Scratch Cup to see of former international Grant at the 16th.
Birdies at the 12th and 13th put him four up and while Grant pulled back a hole at the 15th, he could not birdie the 16th from 30 feet and had no complaints, having failed to putt well or strike the ball with any kind of consistency.
“I just wasn’t at the races really,” said Grant, who played six matches in Ulster’s Interprovincial Matches win in Cork last week and revealed that he is now moving to Mallorca to practice in warm climes for a possible tilt at the Q-School later this year.
“I was certainly tired but I just didn’t putt well at all and my concentration was terrible. I just hit too many bad shots.”
O’Hara’s tale is quite the opposite.
“I am driving well and my putting is good,” he said. “I am confident over them and seeing the lines, which is important here and each match my all round game is getting better and better.
“I only play this and a few scratch cups and down here because my job keeps me very busy in the summer time, especially in May and June.”
Revealing that he might never have taken up the game at the age of 15 had someone not built a pitch and putt course near the local hurling pitch, his love of golf is hurling’s loss as he explained that he once come close to greatness when he played alongside Henry Shefflin in a south Kilkenny team.
“That was many moons ago and I doubt he’d remember,” O’Hara said with a grin.
Two more wins would certainly consign that hurling memory to history for O’Hara but first he must beat Cairndhu’s McKinstry - a soft-spoken Ulsterman with a fiery golf temperament.
The 20-year old pharmacy student beat Royal Dublin’s Sean Ryan by two holes before being taken to the 23rd - The Dell - by Rathmore’s Ben Best, where he won with a par three.
The other semi-final promises to be a high quality affair with former Boys star Gleeson celebrating his Lahinch debut in impressive fashion.
“It’s my first year in men’s golf and it’s been a huge step up,” said the Dubliner, who won the Connacht, Ulster and Irish Under 15s titles in 2009 before going to earn Jacque Leglise honours for Great Britain and Ireland at Portmarnock last year.
Armed with a two-ball putter supplied by his uncle and caddie John Gleeson after the third round, he beat Shannon’s Ed Hickey 5 and 4 before edging out Royal Dublin’s Bryan McSweeney 2 and 1 in a very tight affair.
“I was playing well coming in and hoping to do well but it’s all down to the putter,” Gleeson said. “I couldn’t putt the first two days, but I’ve holed everything since I put it in the bag.”
He will certainly need his best game against 26-year old Ward, who plans to turn professional in September.
The Carrickmacross native brilliantly birdied the 15th and took the 16th in par to go two up against last year’s runner up Stephen Healy and then held on to win by one hole as the Claremorris man closed with two brave but ultimately fruitless birdies.
“You finish with two birdies and go home,” Healy said wistfully. “That’s matchplay. I played better this week than I did in getting to the final last year but Simon played very well.”
South of Ireland Amateur Open Championship, Lahinch GC (sponsored by Clare Coast Hotels)
R McKinstry (Cairndhu) bt S Ryan (Royal Dublin) 2 holes,
B Best (Rathmore) bt E Smith (Ardee) 21st,
P O’Hara (Kilkenny) bt S Coulter (Warrenpoint) 2/1,
N Grant (Knock) bt C Cunningham (Carton House ) 2/1,
A Gleeson (Castle) bt E Hickey (Shannon) 5/4,
B McSweeney (Royal Dublin) bt J Rothwell (Curragh) 1H,
S Ward (Co Louth) bt J Sutherland (Galgorm Castle) 2/1,
S Healy Claremorris) bt R Bridges (Stackstown) 5/4.
R McKinstry (Cairndhu) bt B Best (Rathmore) 23rd,
P O’Hara (Kilkenny) bt N Grant (Knock) 3/2,
A Gleeson (Castle) bt B McSweeney (Royal Dublin) 2/1,
S Ward (Co Louth) bt S Healy Claremorris) 1h.
(8:30) R McKinstry (Cairndhu) v P O’Hara (Kilkenny),
(8:45) A Gleeson (Castle) v S Ward (Co Louth).