McIlroy seeks his place in history

By Brian Keogh

It's been 45 years since Joe Carr became the last player to lift the West of Ireland Amateur Open Championship Trophy for the third year in succession.

The great Sutton amateur beat Swinford's Barney O'Beirne 7 and 5 in the 1962 final to capture the blue riband of Connacht golf for the 11th time in his glorious amateur career, just four years before his 12th victory over Rupert De Lacey Staunton.

O'Beirne, a scratch player and interprovincial, would tragically lose his life in the Tuskar Rock air disaster as the commander of Flight 712, which crashed en route from Cork to London on March 24 1968.

A lot has happened in golf since Carr pulled off his second hat-trick in the West, having completed the feat for the first time in 1948 with a 5 and 4 victory over County Sligo's Cecil Ewing.

His second hat-trick came in the same year that Arnold Palmer would win his second Open Championship at Troon and Jack Nicklaus would lift the US Open for the first time.

Palmer would also don the green jacket at Augusta that year while Gary Player, who made his 50th appearance in the Masters this season, beat Bob Goalby by a shot to capture his third major in the US PGA at Aronimink Golf Club in Pennsylvania.

It is with huge anticipation then, that golfing aficionados west of the Shannon prepare for the 85th edition of the Championship this season when Holywood's Rory McIlroy bids to etch his name in the history books alongside the immortal names of Carr and Ewing and win three 'West' titles in a row.

But the 17-year-old Co Down native knows that he will no doubt be made to suffer to complete the greatest feat in modern Irish amateur golf over the hallowed links of Rosses Point in an event that is sponsored by the Radisson SAS Hotel & Spa.

Since he lost to Castletroy's Stephen Moloney in the last 16 as a raw 14-year-old in 2004, McIlroy has won his 12 matchplay encounters with some of the most exciting golf you are likely to see at this level for quite some time.

Yet it hasn't been a walk in the park for a player who will say goodbye to the amateur ranks at the end of the summer and take his first steps into the unforgiving world of professional golf.

Seven of his 12 matches have gone to the dreaded 17th at least with three of them decided in extra holes in front of massive crowds in the shadow of old Ben Bulben.

Unusually, McIlroy has never led the qualifiers, sharing second place behind Michael McGeady in 2005 and fifth last year behind Paul O'Hanlon, the man he beat in a thrilling final.

The Ulster tyro will head the 144-strong field as the red-hot favourite again this year and will do so as the reigning Irish Close and European Amateur champion.

He could arrive in Sligo at the top of the R&A administered World Amateur golf ranking having headed to his preparatory events in the Sherry Cup and Portuguese Open as the world number two.

McIlroy expects to win again, and with good reason. But he knows that he will be hard pressed by the usual suspects in the shape of Irish team mates such as O'Hanlon, Darren Crowe, Connor Doran, South of Ireland champion Simon Ward, the talented Shane Lowry or Limerick veteran Pat Murray.

"I'm really looking forward to the West," McIlroy said. "I always like going back to Sligo because it is the start of the year really. It kicks everything off The crowds are great and they treat us really well there, I think it is a really good week.

"I like the golf course as well, so hopefully I can make it three it a row, like Joe Carr. I've heard a lot about him and I know his record but I don't know an awful lot more about him.

"To go unbeaten for three years in a row would be pretty nice and that is what I am aiming for. I just about hung in there a few times over the last two years and I have no idea how I managed to win those matches.

"Maybe it is because I just love the head-to-head aspect of it. If it gets quite tight things can obviously get quite exciting and that's why you get such great crowds down there."

Golf courses can make or break a championship and Rosses Point is a wonderful matchplay test with a heady mix of birdie holes early on and that run of tiger tough tests towards the finish.

"You've got the tough 16th and the 17th is really tough," McIlroy said. "But you can birdie the 18th so it is great for matchplay and I can't wait to get back there.

"I think I have been pretty luck over the years to get through a few very tough matches in the early rounds. But what I like most about Rosses Point is that you just have to hit the ball really well.

"I think if you are hitting it well around there you are going to put a lot of pressure on your opponents and some of the greens are tricky with run offs on holes like the 11th, 12th, 14th, 15th and 16th making it really tough to get up and down.

"But if you strike the ball well you are going to put a lot of pressure on your opponent, which is really tough to beat in matchplay."

Getting off to a fast start in an 18 hole sprint is vital and McIroy will be gunning for plenty of early birdies when he turns up for what could be an historic championship.

"The first is a drive and a wedge most of the time and you can drive it very close to the second green as well," he explained. "If it is calm, the par-five third is only a drive and an iron.

"The fourth is a good par three but the par-five fifth is only a drive and an iron as well so I think that if you want to get a couple up early on you would need to be three or four under par after five to get a few holes up.

"The stretch from the sixth to the eighth is pretty tough so that makes it even more important to get off to a good start with those three holes coming up."

The par-three fourth and ninth holes are two of the standouts for McIlroy on a par 38 front nine that measures over 3,300 yards.

"They are good holes and because they are so exposed, the wind can play a big factor," he explained. "They both play in the same direction and the same yardage, around 170 yards, so they can play anything from a six iron to a nine iron.

"In fact the ninth can play even longer because you are hitting from an elevated tee. The par-three 13th is a bit of a birdie chance I suppose even though you have the burn running round the back of the green.

"It is usually playing pretty soft so the river is not really in play. But things get quite tough after that from that point on with the new bunkers there on the 15th making it a tough drive. Obviously the 16th and 17th are really hard, so it is a great finish and it should be exciting."

Measuring 452 yards uphill, the 17th is pure matchplay theatre as the cream of Irish amateur golf battles to secure a par four that almost always wins the hole.

"The 17th is very old fashioned and if it is calm I'll try to hit driver over the hill," McIlroy said. "But normally you get up there and it is a three-wood up the right side and a long iron to the green.

"I think it is good that the West is played at this time of the year because if they played it in the summer when the greens are hard and fast, people could be taking nines and tens on that 17th."

Ominously for McIlroy's challengers, the plus five handicapper reckons he is a far better player than the 16 year old you had to battle hard to beat O'Hanlon in last year's decider.

His performance in the Dubai Desert Classic in February, where he shot three sub-par rounds, has boosted his confidence to new heights and he knows he can now tee it up with the world's top professionals and compete.

"I have more confidence now going into professional events but in relation to the amateur championships I know who I am competing against and hopefully I can make a good attempt at trying to win the West three years in a row."

McIlroy's West of Ireland record

Qualifying 73 71 (144) T 17
1st rd beat Pat Murray 3/2
2nd rd beat John Morris 1 hole
3rd rd lost to Stephen Moloney 3/2.

Qualifying 68 67 (135 ) T2
1st rd beat Barry Reddan 5/4
2nd rd beat Michael Buggy 6/5
3rd rd beat Alan Glynn (Porter's Park) at 22nd
Quarter-finals beat Greg Massey 3/2
Semi-finals beat Rory Leonard 1 up
Final bt David Finn 2 and 1.

Qualifying 71 71 (142) T-5th
1st rd beat Ryan Boal at 20th
2nd rd beat Shaun Doherty 2/1
3rd rd beat Tomas O'Neill 4/3
Quarter-finals beat Connor Doran 5/4
Semi-finals beat David Horsey (Styal, UK) at 21st
Final beat Paul O'Hanlon 3 and 1.