County Louth’s Simon Ward left the amateur ranks on a high when he survived a war of attrition to beat Kilkenny’s Paul O’Hara on the 19th to capture the South of Ireland Amateur Open Championship for the second time.
The 26-year old, champion in 2006, arrived in Lahinch knowing this was going to be his swan-song and while he would have preferred to win the title by holing out like a hero, he felt for 34-year old surprise package O’Hara, who overshot the green from the rough at the first extra hole of a gripping decider, knocked his slippery approach putt a good four feet past and missed the return.
[Below - Simon Ward putts for the title on the 18th from 50 feet. He came very close indeed. Pics Thos Caffrey/www.golffile.ie]
“It’s great to win my last championship as an amateur where I won my first,” a delighted Ward said, his parents Peter and Mary proudly watching him win for the first time. “It’s very exciting, I love this course, it fits my eye — horses for courses if you like.
“It’s not the way you want to win — you’d prefer to hole a putt and take the title that way — so I feel for Paul because he is a very good player and I believe he will have more to say in his championship in the future.”
Insisting he would not be dissuaded from joining the professional ranks, Ward added: “I’m definitely turning pro. I think I’ve done my time as an amateur and that’s why I got up for this week. I knew it was my last one and that got me going and kept me going. Now I need something new.”
O’Hara had played superbly to make his way to the decider, winning all his matches without having to go to the 18th. Yet having never expected to go so far, his defeat in a final that was played in testing conditions stung all the more.
“It was only natural as the week went on that I wanted to go further and further,” O’Hara said. “I guess I probably missed too many fairways in the final and against a player of Simon’s quality you end up paying the price.”
The semi-finals were played in horrific conditions — steady wind and torrential rain — but while Ward had to dig deep to see off 19-year old Alex Gleeson of Castle by 2 and 1, O’Hara cruised to an impressive 6 and 5 win over a struggling Ryan McKinstry from Cairndhu.
The final was anything but quick — it took more than four and a half hours — but it was certainly gripping as both men played par golf to take the match right to the death.
The lead changed hands three times and only six holes were halved in occasional showers and southerly winds that gusted up to 25 mph at times.
Ward hit two superb shots to birdie the second and go one up but lost the par-three fifth — the Dell — when he three-putted and O’Hara, who’d backed off his tee shot after being beeped by a passing motorist, got up and down for par having come up well short on the hill that blocks out the green.
The Kilkenny man then took the sixth with a solid par to go one up but after three-putting the seventh, he hit his tee shot stone dead at the 166-yard eighth and was conceded a birdie that was good enough to regain the lead.
Ward levelled with a conceded birdie at the ninth (O’Hara was in trouble left and never got back into position) and went one up at the next as O’Hara lipped out from 12 feet for par
Ward missed the par-three 11th green to the left while O’Hara found sand on the right. But it was the Co Louth man who hit a poor chip this time and O’Hara got up and down superbly from the sand, holing out well for a winning par three to level again.
He then matched Ward’s birdie four at the 12th, pitching to a couple of feet as his opponent two putted comfortably, and escaped with a half at the 13th where the Co Louth man missed a speedy, eight-foot chance for birdie from the back of the green.
A missed fairway at the 14th led to an automatic bogey and Ward, swinging with wonderful tempo (as one knowledgeable observer remarked) made a regulation par to go one up again, holed a crucial seven footer for par at the next to maintain his advantage but then putted off the green at the 16th to leave matters all square once more.
“I just thought it was slower that it was,” Ward said of his 45 footer from just off the front edge than ran past the pin and trundled over the back into the swale from where he narrowly failed to chip in for a half.
“Paul’s birdie putt looked well short but it got to the hole so that green was obviously a lot faster than it looked.”
Both men nervously three putted the 17th - O’Hara going long and then missing the seven footer to go to the last one up after watching Ward come up 12 feet shot with his long range effort and then fail to save par.
It was the first time that O’Hara had been taken to the 18th all week but he drove into the right hand fairway trap and was followed in by Ward.
O’Hara hit his second into the right rough with Ward finding the left side of the fairway.
They were both well short of the 150 yard marker with the pin cut at the back of the green. Never having played the 18th all week, O’Hara misclubbed from 200 yards but got a friendly bounce over the front right trap, finishing 10 yards short of the green on the downslope of the bunker and facing a 30 yard chip.
Ward hit the front of the green but left himself a 50 foot putt that became even more difficult having misjudged his last two long range efforts and seen O’Hara hit such a good pitch that he conceded him his par five.
While he had a 50 footer for birdie and the championship, Ward was trying to lag it close but dared to dream as it tracked for the hole. A last minute dive to the left denied him and he could only smile as he headed to the 19th for the heart-stopping, if somewhat, tragic conclusion.
South of Ireland Amateur Open Championship, Lahinch GC (Sponsored by Clare Coast Hotels)
Paul O’Hara (Kilkenny) bt Ryan McKinstry (Cairndhu) 6/5;
Simon Ward (Co Louth) bt Alex Gleeson (Castle) 2/1
S Ward (Co Louth) bt P O’Hara (Kilkenny) 19th.