The line that separates boys from youths and youths from men was blurred a little more this season with some outstanding individual performances both at national and international level.
At 17 years of age, Holywood’s Rory McIlroy is still technically a boy, yet he played just once at youths level, won two domestic senior championships and then took the European Individual Amateur Championship to finish the season as the top ranked amateur in Europe and one of the best half dozen in the world.
The days when Ireland’s top international golfers kept pipes in the pockets of their three-piece suits are long gone and it is interesting to note that all six members of the Irish Youths side that played in the now defunct European Youths Team Championship in Spain, also lined out for the Senior side in the Men’s Home Internationals in Scotland.
Ignoring for a moment the stellar performances of McIlroy, 18-year-old Simon Ward was arguably the revelation of the season as he captured the South Ireland Championship at Lahinch, reached the final of the Irish Close and helped Ireland finish ninth in the World Amateur Team Championship for the Eisenhower Trophy in South Africa.
Quality players are emerging earlier than ever before and while some of our under 18 and under 21 players still need to gain experience at boys and youths level before stepping up to senior grade, it is apparent that more and more of them are eminently capable of holding their own at the highest level of amateur golf.
“I felt we had our strongest youths team for quite a while,” said Irish Youths Team captain Padraig Hogan of a side that featured McIlroy, Ward, Gareth Shaw, Shane Lowry, Aaron O’Callaghan and Seamus Power. “It is probably one of the first years ever that all six played senior Home Internationals.”
Hogan was disappointed that his charges didn’t acquit themselves better in the European Youths Team Championship in Spain, where they failed to make the top flight and then lost out to the Netherlands in the battle for fifth place.
The congested domestic and international calendar has adversely affected boys and youths golf and Hogan believes that the governing bodies at home and abroad will have to sit down and work out a system that will be bring out the best in our young stars.
“Because some of the Youths events clashed with some of the major championships overseas, they were deprived of a top quality field,” Hogan said. “In the Leinster Youths, six of the guys were playing in the British Amateur the same week. The Connacht Youths came up around the time of the Home Internationals so you are not getting your full quota of players in the tournaments because of that.
“The season has got very very congested and the executive will have to sit down and discuss the whole issue of youths golf and where we are going. Do we still have to have five youths championships? If we don’t have them what are we going to put in their place?
“Some of the players have progressed to senior level but there are some players there who aren’t quite ready for it. Boys golf ends at Under 18 but there has been some talk at European level of moving boys golf to under 19 to try and bridge the gap a little bit.”
Hogan’s first year in the Irish captaincy was a mixed one with the failure in the Europeans balanced by excellent friendly wins, away to Scotland and at home against Wales.
Top youth Shaw, who is a junior at East Tennessee State University, won the Ulster and Irish Youths Championships to capture the Joe Carr Award for the second year in a row. Yet Hogan is concerned that the young Irish stars living in the US are not progressing as rapidly as he might like.
“Even though there is a lot of talent there some of the guys are very slow coming through,” he said. “The one big reservation is the number of guys playing in America. They have a full collegiate season over there, they come home in May or June to see their families, and relax for a while and we expect them to embark on a full domestic season and it takes them a month or two to acclimatise.
“When we want them at their best they are tired from their collegiate season. So we would like to encourage more of them to stay at home. Niall Kearney went over to East Tennessee and came home after three or four weeks. They go for the American Dream of lovely weather and lots of golf but not too many of them come back better players.
“The exception would Graeme McDowell. But Michael Hoey didn’t improve and of the current crop the one who is doing reasonably well is Gareth Shaw. I don’t think Cian McNamara has become a better player. I don’t think Aaron O’Callaghan is becoming a better player and I’d been very interested to see how Fergal Rafferty gets on this year.”
Newlands’ Andrew Hogan and Esker Hills Shane Lowry are two of the up and coming talents in Irish golf and captain Hogan is interested to see how Lowry progresses next season after joining the Castle’s Dara Lernihan and Athlone’s Ciaran O’Connor at UCD this year.
“Shane is a great player who has yet to really deliver on his promise but Simon Ward was a real revelation this season,” Hogan said. “Bar nobody, he is the best ‘holer-outer’ in the country. He’s a fantastic putter with a wonderful imagination around the greens. And that will stand to him when he is not playing well and on certain days he will be able to get the ball around the golf course.”
While Hogan feels that structural changes may have to be made to get the best out of the talent available, the point is not lost on Dick Cusack, who also enjoyed mixed fortunes in his first year in charge of the Boys team.
“We had a really good year but didn’t start too well,” he said. “We went to Wales at Easter and travelled without Niall Kearney and Andrew Hogan, who played in the West at Rosses Point. They had a good strong team and beat us 12.5 - 7.5.
“After that we picked the team to go to Malmo for the European Boys Team championship. We failed by one shot to make the top flight but we beat Sweden Italy and Germany in matchplay to finish in ninth position which was a good performance from there in.”
The boys came out fighting in the Home International matches at Lossiemouth in early August, beating England and Wales but losing 8-7 to Scotland in the championship decider.
"James Patterson star in the 8-7 win over England on the first day and that gave us great heart," Cusack recalled. "We then faced Wales and we beat them 10.5. to 4.5. As things turned out, we only needed a halved match against Scotland to win the Home Internationals but we slipped at the end, losing the foursomes 3-2 and sharing the singles.
“We were disappointed not to win it but it was still a remarkable improvement on the start of the year. For my first year as captain, I was quite happy and Neil Manchip made a remarkable difference to the lads as coach,” Cusack said.
While Stephen Healy from Claremorris won the Irish Boys Close championship at Kinsale, Headfort’s Rory McNamara was the most consistent performer of the season and succeeded Niall Kearney as the winner of the Tom Montgomery Award.
In his final year at boys level, Kearney was again one of the outstanding performers, captaining Great Britain and Ireland in the Jacque Leglise Trophy in the Czech Republic and making his senior international debut in the Home Internationals, where Portstewart’s Paul Cutler and Moyola Park’s Paul O’Kane were reserves.
Kearney also won the Leinster Boys championship at Lucan, firing rounds of 68, 70, 73 and 67 to win by two strokes from Andrew Hogan in his final year at under 18 level.
While Kearney is moving on, seven of the 11 strong boys team will be available again next season and with the backing of the provincial coaches and national coach Neil Manchip, Cusack is highly optimistic about the future of players such as Cutler, Irish Under 15 champion Iarlaith Keane, Ulster Boys semi-finalist Colin Fairweather and Moyola Park’s Luke Lennox, Ireland’s top finisher in the European Young Masters in Austria.