For the first time since a precocious Rory McIlroy galloped to back-to-back West of Ireland victories in 2006, a teenager will tee it up at Rosses Point today with the weight of expectation on his young shoulders.
Dermot McElroy, the bespectacled, 17-year old rising star from Ballymena, has been thrust from relative obscurity into the role of championship favourite at County Sligo on the back of his name, his reputation and a sensational round of 61 just last week.
And while it is grossly unfair to expect this mild mannered but talented young man to follow in the footsteps of the greatest young player of a generation, the plus-two handicapper appears to have the game and the demeanour to go a long way towards becoming yet another Ulster golfing sensation.
Unlike McIlroy, who swinging a club from the age of 18 months, McElroy didn’t take up the game seriously until he was eight.
But Ballymena’s teaching professional Ken Revie, immediately recognised that he had some serious raw talent on his hands and a decade later McElroy is the Irish Boys champion and a surprise candidate for Walker Cup selection alongside more established West of Ireland rivals such as Paul Cutler and Alan Dunbar.
“The very first time I saw Dermot was at age seven,” Revie recalled. “I was doing a bit of coaching for kids from local primary schools. Dermot had missed the first week and when he turned up on the second week, I was doing bunker play.
“So I just threw a ball into the bottom of the bunker and told him to go and hit it. The practice bunker at Ballymena is quite deep while he couldn’t have been much more than two feet tall at the time, or so it seemed. Anyway he hit that first ball out and straight onto the green.
“Needless to say, I was quite impressed. So I threw another ball in, said ‘do that again’ and whack, he hit that one onto the green as well. Let’s say it was pretty clear he had a natural aptitude for the game and he has built on it ever since.”
Comparisons are odious and Revie sees no reason why McElroy should be compared with his namesake, despite his talent. Nevertheless, his pupil’s form over the past nine months has been eye-catching. So eye-catching, in fact, that bookmaker’s Paddy Power have installed him as the 7-1 favourite to win ‘the West’ next Tuesday afternoon.
Beaten by Dunbar in the final of the “North” last year, McElroy went on to reach the quarter-finals of the British Boys and then romped to a seven-stroke win in the Irish Boys Close.
Promoted to the senior Ireland panel, he was the top under 18 player when he finished third in the individual standings at the prestigious European Nations Cup in Sotogrande earlier this month.
But what really caught the eye was the McIlroy-esque, 10 under par 61 he shot in the final round of the Peter McEvoy Trophy last week, smashing the course record at Copt Heath near Birmingham to back into fourth place in an event that includes Lee Westwood and Justin Rose on its list of former champions.
After opening with three successive 73s, McElroy’s 10-birdie 61 came out of the blue but immediately resonated with Irish golf fans in the light of Rory McIlroy’s 11 under par 61 in the 2005 North of Ireland qualifiers at Royal Portrush.
Aged 12 at the time, McElroy walked every yard of McIlroy’s mesmeric round on the Dunluce links that day and makes no secret of his admiration for the Holywood star who came so close to Masters glory at Augusta National two weeks ago.
“it was just fantastic,” McElroy recalled. “The strike and all the shots he played. Just to be there was very special.”
Like his namesake, McElroy has already left school and is currently weighing up his future in the game and a slew of scholarship offer from American universities.
If he wins the West this week, it’s safe to bet that the Walker Cup selectors will be looking seriously at including him in the side to face the Americans at Royal Aberdeen in September.
The last time a young Ulsterman shot a 61 in a Walker Cup year, he failed to get selected. The chairman of selectors was Peter McEvoy of McEvoy Trophy fame. He admits he got it badly wrong that time.
“We bottled out. Us not picking him is probably the low point of my career as a selector,” McEvoy later admitted.
This time, the R&A selectors have had fair warning that you ignore Irish golfing talent at your peril.
West of Ireland Amateur Open Championship, Co Sligo GC
36-hole Strokeplay Qualifying.
Tee times, today (tomorrow):
7.0 (10.54) E McCormack (Galway) A Gleeson (The Castle) S O’Hara (Co. Sligo).
7.09 (11.03) S Cannon (Loughrea) S Brady (Co Sligo/NUIM) S Barry (Lee Valley).
7.18 (11.12) P Delaney (Arklow) A Wynne (Strandhill) D Barry (Mahon).
7.27 (11.21) A McCormick (Scrabo) G McGrane (R Dublin) D Murray (Skerries).
7.36 (11.30) J Pierse (Grange) D O’Donovan (Muskerry) M Hammond (Moyola Pk).
7.45 (11.39) J Dillon (Headfort) D Reilly (Westmanstown) P Bukley (Sydney).
7.54 (11.48) S Crowe (Dunmurry) J Foran (Thurles) D Lally (Mullingar).
8.03 (11.57) D Murphy (Portarlington) M Buggy (Castlecomer) C Daly (Castletroy).
8.12 (12.06) D Loftus (Swinford) E Stack (Ballybunion) A Doran (Ardee).
8.21 (12.24) R Twomey (Muskerry) D Mallon (Dungannon) G Carew (Edenderry).
8.30 (12.33) D Crowe (Dunmurry) K Crowley (Lee Valley) J Greene (Carlow).
8.39 (12.42) C Boggan (Co Meath) C Doran (Banbridge) G McKenna (Fortwilliam).
8.48 (12.51) B Casey (Headfort) M O’Sullivan (Stow Acres, USA) G McDermott (Co Sligo).
8.57 (1.0) S McCarthy (Black Bush) M Horan (Birr) E Murphy (Cork).
9.06 (1.09) Paul Cullen (R Tara) N O’Hara (Castleknock) K Shannon (Greenore).
9.15 (1.18) W Telford (Rathmore) A Hogan (Newlands) E Arthurs (Forrest Little).
9.24 (1.27) C Selfridge (Moyola Pk) D Kelleher (Portmarnock) S O’Connor (Skerries).
9.42 (1.36) G Dunne (Seapoint), E O’Connor (Ballybunion) B Fennelly (R Dublin/NUIM).
09.51 (1.45) S McConnell (Ballyclare) D King (Tramore) M Durcan (Co. Sligo).
10.0 (1.54) B Reddan (Co Louth) P O’Leary (Lucan) D Sutton (Lurgan).
10.09 (2.03) R Walsh (Kilkenny) T O’Connor (Athlone) D Coyle (Co Louth).
10.18 (2.12) P Cutler (Portstewart) D Morgan (Mullingar) RMcNamara (Headfort).
10.27 (2.21) M Sinclair (Knock) R O’Donovan (Lucan) B Anderson (Co Sligo).
10.36 (2.30) D Dunne (Co Sligo) R Durnin (L’town & B’town) R Leonard (Banbridge).
10.45 (2.39) M Shanahan (W Waterford) R Cannon (L’town & B’town) M O’Toole (Lucan).
10.54 (7.0) J Lyons (Birr) C Abernethy (Dun Laoghaire) D O’Sullivan (Strandhill).
11.03 (7.09) B Corcoran (Roganstown) W Hanna (Kilkeel) S Bryan (Delgany).
11.12 (7.18) M McGinley (Grange) C Campbell (Warrenpoint) D O’Neill (Carton House).
11.21 (7.27) L Lennox (Moyola Pk) S Ward (Co. Louth) K Lovelock (Hindhead, UK).
11.30 (7.36) H Diamond (Belvior Pk) P Sheehy (Newcastlewest) C Molloy (Ardee).
11.39 (7.45) A Dunbar (Rathmore) E O’Sullivan (The Island) S Loftus (Lahinch).
11.48 (7.54) D O’Connor (Athlone) J Hume (Rathsallagh) N Gorey (Muskerry).
11.57 (8.03) P Dunne (Greystones) N Grant (Knock) B Walton (The Island).
12.06 (8.12) R Whitson (Mourne) J Hopkins (Skerries) G Lawlor (Newbridge).
12.24 (8.21) D McElroy (Ballymena) D Holland (Castle) G Collins (Rosslare).
12.33 (8.30) J Monaghan (R Dublin) K McDonagh (Athlone/NUIM) G Kelly (Co Louth/UCD).
12.42 (8.39) T Cleary (Dromoland) C Martin (Kilkenny) E Haugh (Castletroy).
12.51 (8.48) D F Coghlan (R Dublin) C Sharvin (Ardglass) S Barry (L’town & B’Town).
1.00 (8.57) Q Carew (Edenderry) J Leacy (Dungarvan) N Kearns (Omagh).
1.09 (9.06) R Weldon (Killeen Castle) C O’Sullivan (Fota Island) M McAlpin (R Portrush).
1.18 (9.15) B Ronan (Co Louth) R McConnell (Belvior Pk) S Ryan (R Dublin).
1.27 (9.24) D Downie (Sutton) P Murray (Limerick) B Churchill (Galgorm Castle).
1.36 (9.42) A Kiernan (Forrest Little) I Brennan (Greenore) K Nolan (Dun Laoghaire).
1.45 (9.51) J Richardson (R Portrush) R McCormack (Naas) A Kelly (Charlesville).
1.54 (10.0) P O’Hara (Kilkenny) S Miskelly (Knock) G Bohill (Co Louth).
2.03 (10.09) M Ryan (Grange) C Fairweather (Knock) S Walsh (Balltinglass/UCD).
2.12 (10.18) D McKenna (Foyle) G Moynihan (The Island) S Morrison (C of Derry).
2.21 (10.27) C Glynn (Carton House) A Kearney (Castlerock) E Smith (Ardee).
2.30 (10.36) S McGlynn (S County) R Kenny (Woodlands/NUIM) T McLarnon (Massereene).
2.39 (10.45) R Bridges (Stackstown) A Lynch (R Tara) D Sweeney (Westmanstown).