Looking more like the hero in a John Ford western than one of Ireland’s up-and-coming golf stars, Royal Dublin’s Niall Kearney swaggered towards the stunning Lahinch sunset with a look of immense satisfaction on his young face.
Standing six feet two and thin as a four-iron, the 20-year-old Dubliner etched his place in the history books when he became the first player from the storied Bull Island club to lift the McNamara sponsored South of Ireland Championship since Noel Fogarty broke the mold in 1967.
"I've been working hard for the last few years to get my game up to scratch to win a title like this,” Kearney said at the end of sun-kissed afternoon. “It is a relief that is has come now. It's great. My first senior championship.”
A long time friend of Lahinch, Fogarty was on hand to congratulate his fellow clubman on his seemingly effortless 4 and 3 victory over Paul O’Hanlon of The Curragh, the reigning Irish Close champion.
It is an achievement that undoubtedly heralds the start of a bright golfing future for the former Leinster and Irish Boys champion and brings to a close a memorable summer that saw him play a pivotal role in Ireland’s second successive European Team Championship victory in Turin.
No doubt Christy O’Connor Senior can claim some of the credit for Kearney’s immaculate short game, having taken the young Raheny man out onto the links at Royal Dublin for pitching a chipping lessons in recent years.
Indeed, Kearney used those skills to brilliant effect when he came back from two down after seven holes to beat Aaron O'Callaghan of Douglas 3 and 2 in the semi-finals, rattling home birdies at the eighth, ninth, 11th and 13th to turn the match on its head.
Newbridge native O'Hanlon did exactly the same to see off surprise package Niall Gorey of Lee Valley in the other semi-final and the small but powerfully built 23-year-old had nothing but praise for his Ireland team mate at the end of an entertaining final.
“I didn't perform this afternoon but I don't want to take anything away from Niall, who is the best young player in the country bar Rory McIlroy,” said O’Hanlon, whose run to the final earned him enough points to pip Shane Lowry for the GUI’s Order of Merit title, the Willie Gill Award.
“He pretty much won the European Team title for us in Turin when he beat Matthew Haines in the singles and now he has won this. He is starting to fulfill his potential.”
The key to Kearney’s victory over O’Hanlon was not so much his prowess around the greens as his relentlessly accurate long game and zen-like patience.
After three-putting the first green to go one down and halving the second in birdie fours, he found himself back on terms when O’Hanlon called a penalty shot on himself on the third green after his ball moved as he addressed a lengthy birdie putt.
The fourth was also halved in birdie before O’Hanlon struggled to match Kearney’s booming drives on the sixth and seventh and lost both to pars after getting into trouble off the tee.
The Dubliner was two up and cruising but turned the screw at the 400-yard ninth, where he split the fairway with a driver, hit a nine-iron pin high and rolled in a sweet 18 footer for a birdie to go three up. Indeed he could have been four up after 10 holes had he taken advantage of a glorious, 190-yard three-iron approach at the 10th that pitched at the stick and danced to attention just 10 feet beyond the hole.
His only major error came at the 170-yard 11th, where he tried to punch a four-iron into the fat of the green but pulled it wide and lost the hole to a solid O’Hanlon par.
But the long game clicked back into gear after that and after halving the long 12th in par, he went three up again at the driveable 13th, where O’Hanlon drove into trouble on the right and eventually lipped out with a slippery four footer to go three down again.
After solid pars at the 14th, it all ended at the 466-yard 15th where O’Hanlon finished in a deep swale left of the green and Kearney showed no mercy by firing a majestic, 180-yard five-iron to 15 feet to set up a winning par four.
O'Hanlon couldn't see the pin but while he pitched to 10 feet and escaped the first match point when Kearney's birdie putt slipped by, he failed to save par and saluted the new champion.
South of Ireland Amateur Open Championship, Lahinch GC
Paul O'Hanlon (The Curragh) bt Niall Gorey (Lee Valley) 3 and 2.
Niall Kearney (Royal Dublin) bt Aaron O'Callaghan (Douglas) 3 and 2.
Niall Kearney bt Paul O'Hanlon 4 and 3.