Lahinch Golf Club has taken what it believes will be a giant step towards restoring the prestige of the South of Ireland Amateur Championship by staging a 36-hole stroke play qualifier next year.
Thanks to a less congested national calendar, there will be more likelihood that the top Irish and possibly some elite international players will be available to make the trip to the classic County Clare links for Ireland’s oldest provincial championship, which has suffered from decaffeinated fields for several years.
The Championship has been brought forward by three days and will begin with strokeplay qualifying rounds over the Old Course on Wednesday and Thursday July 22 and 23, designed to produce a quality 64-man field for matchplay combat from July 24-26.
It’s understood that the club and officials at provincial and national level will actively try to encourage the elite Irish players as well as internationals from as far afield as Australia to tee it up in the 114th staging of an event that was first played in 1895.
The move is a welcome one considering the successively weak fields that have turned up at Lahinch in recent years.
“It has been very difficult to attract leading national and international amateur golfers to participate in the South due to a very packed and gruelling schedule of competitions around that time," said Lahinch Golf Club captain, Ian Slattery
“The Golfing Union of Ireland has been conscious of the impact of the congested calendar on the competitors and we have been delighted to work with them to ensure that our leading golfers have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of previous winners of the South such as JB Carr, Paul McGinley, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell.
“With the Interpros moving back to the beginning of July and with the changes to the Championship format next year, we see a great opportunity to encourage our leading amateur golfers as well as visitors from overseas, to travel to Lahinch and play one of the world’s greatest links courses mid-summer.”
Just one member of the Irish side that went on to win the Home Internationals this season, Moyola Park’s Chris Selfridge, made the trip from the Interprovincial Championship at The Island to Lahinch for the South, which began just two days later.
The reigning North of Ireland champion lost in the fourth round and took to Twitter afterwards, writing: “Disappointing to lose today in the south at the fantastic @LahinchGolfClub just too much golf recently, #exhausted”
The late withdrawal of West Waterford’s Gary Hurley, Munster's top player this year, was also a blow to an event that saw four unheralded players reach the last four with Shandon Park’s Stuart Bleakley beating Portmarnock’s Darragh Coghlan 3 and 2 in the final.
The 2015 Senior Interprovincial Championship will now take place almost three weeks before the South, which means that the event should have more importance for the Irish selectors,
While the Home International team is not announced until after the South, it's no secret that most (if not all) of the places in the side have been decided well before the end of the championship in recent years.
The paucity of World Amateur Golf Ranking(WAGR) points on offer at Lahinch has also been cited as a reason for the poor fields though it’s a chicken and egg situation as the stronger the field, the more points that are awarded.
The South of Ireland is currently a Class F (seventh class) Championship, awarding points only to the semi-finalists this year. In contrast, the Irish Amateur Open is Class B with the West a Class C and the East and North of Ireland Championships all in Class D in an eight-tier system that goes from Elite down to A-B-C-D-E-F-G.
The Irish Amateur Close Championship, which has been moved from June to mid-August next season, was also a Class F event this as far as world ranking points were concerned.
If next season’s South of Ireland can attract the five Irish players currently ranked in the world’s Top 100 - Gavin Moynihan, Paul Dunne, Jack Hume, Hurley and Cormac Sharvin — the number of world ranking points on offer will increase, especially with the strokeplay qualifier counting as a separate event for WAGR purposes. The presence of a Top-20 player would have an even great effect.
With the rescheduling of a number of Championships including the Interpros and Irish Close in 2015, the South of Ireland is the last major opportunity for our leading amateurs to impress the selectors before the Home Internationals which will be held at Royal Portrush from August 12-14.
While the 36-hole strokeplay qualifier might only accommodate 150-160 players — to the disappointment of some in the province — Lahinch is targeting quality over mass participation as the South battles to recover lost prestige in an era when our top players look to foreign fields for top quality competition and those Ranking points.
While the North of Ireland Championship is the most democratic of all the championships as it uses both the Dunluce and Valley links, allowing more than 300 players to tee it up in strokeplay qualifying, it's been ruled out at Lahinch.
Whether or not the Castle Course is a strong enough test is one thing but given the problems posed by the weather when a strokeplay qualifying experiment at Lahinch was marred by fog in 2011, a massive field could lead to an even bigger headache if things go wrong.
That said, the question of dubious handicaps crops up at the South and other championships every year and rather than seeing genuine handicappers lose out to players with artificially low handicaps, there's certainly a case to be made for allowing all comers to tee it up and battle for one of those 64 places.
The pre-qualifier for the West of Ireland Championship has certainly been beneficial to Co Sligo from a monetary point of view. Lahinch would appear to have no interest in or need for extra income in this regard. Quality is the goal and it will be a surprise if the 2015 field is not the strongest for some time.