The red hand of Ulster has ruled the Golfsure Interprovincial Championship with an iron fist for the best part of a decade now and John White’s talented side is again the hot-favourite to smash the opposition when the 53rd edition of the competition tees off on Wednesday at County Louth.
The other three provinces will be giving thanks to the heavens that Holywood’s Rory McIlroy and Clandeboye’s Jonathan Caldwell will miss the matches after their call up to Walker Cup duty during the week.
But even then the Ulster side is a formidable-looking squad featuring three of the four provincial champions in North of Ireland winner Gareth Shaw, East of Ireland king Richard Kilpatrick and South of Ireland supremo Darren Crowe.
Add to that the presence of Ulster Boys champion Paul Cutler, young guns Fergal Rafferty, Stephen Crowe and Ciaran McAleavey, the muilti-talented Nicky Grant and Conor Doran and the experienced Michael Sinclair and you have a power block that is more than capable of winning the title for the third year in a row and the seventh time in nine years.
Team captain John White is “quietly optimistic” that his boys can pull it off on the pristine fairways of the famous Baltray club, which is hosting the event for only the second time since its inception in 1939.
But what is it that makes Ulster golf so strong?
“I think the coaching programmes are good up here,” White said this week. “And you also have the benefit of the junior coaching programmes and the players that feeds into the senior set up.
“I look to my three provincial champions as the leaders of my team. Darren, Richard and Gareth will be playing all six games. I can tell you that now for sure.
“Darren has had a very strong second half to the season and he has been striking the ball particularly well.
“Winning the South was very important to him, very much so. But he put in a tremendous performance in the North as well by getting to the quarter-finals. He only lost to Shane Lowry by one hole and Shane, of course, got to the final and won the Irish Close as well.
“Richard is disappointed not to make the Walker Cup team and he is really looking forward to playing in the Interpros again this year.
“Paul Cutler had a great start to the year when he beat Rory McIlroy in the West of Ireland championship and Fergal Rafferty is another very good young player.
“I am quietly optimistic because we have a good team. But the other teams are very good as well and have great players too.
“It’s going to be another great championship but there is nothing set in stone. You can never taken anything for granted in matchplay.
“We are obviously disappointed that we have lost Rory and Jonny and we wish them well in the Walker Cup squad sessions. But we still have a strong side and we are going to have a great battle with the other teams.
“I have been in charge of the team for the last two years and having won those two we are hoping for a hat-trick. We are looking forward to it.”
Ulster will have a three new caps on the side in Cutler, Rafferty and McAleavey but they will not be taking anything for granted when they take on a new-look Connacht team that features four debutants.
Team captain Pat Killeen is certain that his side illustrates the steady development of the game in Connacht twith no fewer than three members of the Boys and two of the Youths Interprovincial side which competed in Donegal at the end of July.
The newcomers are Claremorris’s Stephen Healy, Athlone’s Kelan McDonagh, Galway’s David Scully and Strandhill’s Tommy McGowan, who caused a sensation at Rosses Point at easter when he stormed into the semi-finals of the West of Ireland championship.
Experience is also well taken care of with West winner and South of Ireland runner-up Joe Lyons ably assisted by Gary McDermott, Damien Coyne and former Youth International Cathal O’Malley, who reached the latter stages of the North and South.
Big-hitting Michael Lavelle from The K Club, who has been in great form all year and David Scully, anchor man on Galway’s All-Ireland winning Senior Cup side of 2006 make up the ten man side.
One of the debutants hoping to make his mark at Baltray is 17-year-old McDonagh from Athlone who earned three and a half points from six in the Boys Interprovincial Championships at Donegal in July.
Connacht finished third that week, beating Munster on the final day and two-handicapper McDonagh is hoping to use Baltray as a stepping stone to greater things.
“I’ve applied for one of the Paddy Harrington Golf Scholarships at Maynooth and if I get in I’m sure it will do wonders from my golf,” he said. “I’d love to do psychology, which is something I use a lot in my golf.
Munster and Leinster have again produced two top class squads. Skipper Frank Gannon will be looking for serious performances from internationals Lowry, Simon Ward and Niall Kearney with Mullingar Scratch Trophy winner Paul O’Hanlon, Cian Curley and Andrew Hogan certain to add some firepower to the side.
Former Sunderland and Shamrock Rovers striker Stephen Grant of Birr will also make his interprovincial debut, completing a fairytale journey from total beginner to plus-three handicapper in the space of six years.
But they will face a serious test when the meet Munster in the first round of matches. Skipper John Carroll will be relying on the likes of Limerick’s Pat Murray, Rosslare’s John Morris and Dougla’s Karl Bornemann to grind out the victories.
But he can also look to South of Ireland semi-finalists Stephen Moloney and quarter-finalist Cian McNamara for big performances. Irish Youths champion Seamus Power and Cork’s Gary O’Flaherty have also been playing well while Peter O’Keeffe and Clancy Bowe and newcomer Thomas O’Flynn of Fota Island will be keen to impress the Irish selectors preparing to choose the side for the next month’s Home Internationals at Co Louth.
Nicky Grant (Knock)
Ciaran McAleavey (Banbridge)
Darren Crowe (Dunmurry)
Stephen Crowe (Dunmurry)
Paul Cutler (Portstewart)
Conor Doran (Banbridge)
Richard Kilpatrick (Banbridge)
Fergal Rafferty (Dungannon)
Gareth Shaw (Lurgan)
Michael Sinclair (Knock)
Captain John White (Co. Armagh)
Rory Leonard (Banbridge)
Ryan Boal (Scrabo)
Damien Coyne (Tuam)
Stephen Healy (Claremorris)
Michael Lavelle (K Club)
Joseph Lyons (Galway)
Gary McDermott (Co. Sligo)
Kelan McDonagh (Athlone)
Tommy McGowan (Strandhill)
Ciaran O’Connor (Athlone)
Cathal O’Malley (Westport)
David Scully (Galway)
Shane K. Kelly (Ballinasloe)
John Neary (Galway)
Cian Curley (Newlands)
Niall Gorey (Lee Valley)
Stephen Grant (Birr)
Andrew Hogan (Newlands)
Niall Kearney (Royal Dublin)
Dara Lernihan (Castle)
Shane Lowry (Esker Hills)
Neil O’ Briain (Royal Dublin)
Paul O’ Hanlon (Curragh)
Simon Ward (Co. Louth)
Captain – Frank Gannon (Co. Louth)
Manager – Denis Feeney (Malahide)
Karl Bornemann (Douglas)
Clancy Bowe (Tramore)
Cian McNamara (Limerick)
Stephen Moloney (Castletroy)
John Morris (Rosslare)
Pat Murray (Limerick)
Gary O’Flaherty (Cork)
Thomas O’Flynn (Fota Island)
Peter O’Keeffe (Douglas)
Seamus Power (West Waterford)
Non Travelling Reserve
Stephen Loftus (Ennis)
Team Captain - John Carroll (Bandon)
Day 1 draw: Ulster v Connacht, Munster v Leinster.