The GUI has strayed from the straight and narrow for the first time in the event’s 118-year history by changing the format of the Golfsure sponsored Irish Amateur Close Championship (see draw attached) from matchplay to strokeplay for the next two years at least.
But those who stray from the fairways at Shannon Golf Club over the next three days are guaranteed to find themselves in a world of pain, so tight and demanding is the pristine County Clare parkland course.
Walker Cup hopefuls Paul Cutler and Alan Dunbar are rightly fancied to continue their dominance of the domestic game when they tee it up in a 144-strong field bidding to make the top 39 who will contest the final two rounds on Sunday.
There is a veritable army of young, up-and-coming stars such as Skerries’ Jeff Hopkins, a semi-finalist in last year’s British Boys Championship, Rathsallagh’s Jack Hume or Headfort’s Rory McNamara waiting to pounce.
But there is also a collection of experienced players waiting to pounce with Muskerry’s Niall Gorey, a semi-finalist in the West of Ireland at Easter, fancied to contend along with Galway’s Eddie McCormack or Newlands’ Andrew Hogan while current or former internationals such as Ulstermen Connor Doran and Rory Leonard, Laytown and Bettystown’s Robbie Cannon or Mullingar’s Dessie Morgan.
“It’s insanely tight,” Gorey joked after a practice round. “If conditions are calm, you might be looking at a six-under par winning total. But if the wind blows it will be closer to six-over.”
Gorey’s sentiments are echoed by Limerick international Pat Murray, who finally made his championship winning breakthrough in 2009 when he brilliantly captured the “Close” at Enniscrone.
“I know it very well,” Murray said. “It’s long, tight and well-manicured and it will play to its full length. The greens will be good and ideally, you need to be long and straight because the ball sits down in the rough and there’s trouble lurking everywhere.
“Length will be a factor without a doubt. There are a few short holes out there but to get at the par-fives in two, you need to be hitting it. The sixth and eighth on the front nine require two good hits to get home in two, depending on the wind.
“It’s also very blowy out there with the Shannon estuary and you could almost get seaside type conditions on a parkland course, which will make it tougher again.”
Murray makes no secret of his dislike for the change from matchplay to strokeplay this year and next - a move forced upon the GUI because of economics and the packed international amateur schedule.
“I miss the matchplay,” he said. “That was always my preference on it. Strokeplay is fine in the qualifying but with the East and the Irish Amateur Open we have enough strokeplay at this stage.
“I know that strokeplay favours the full time golfer to a point but this is a course that requires some getting to know and there are places where you just can’t afford to miss it or you are in serious trouble.
“That said, it’s nice to get back to a parkland course because we play so much links golf. If the breeze is up I don’t think level par would be a bad total at all.”