Bosom buddies Darragh Coghlan and Richard Knightly must park their long friendship for a few hours and don the gloves as they battle for a place in the final of the Clare Coast Hotels sponsored South of Ireland Amateur Open at Lahinch.
The Dubliners, who have been friends since the age of 12 and even share a coach in former amateur great Noel Fox, square off with the satisfaction of knowing that one of them will get a chance to challenge Shandon Park’s Stuart Bleakley or Waterford’s Eanna Griffin for the grand prize.
“It’s great to have a chance,” said 26-year old Pharmacy graduate Knightly from Royal Dublin, who was surgical around the greens, getting up and down six times in a row to turn two up before chipping in for an outrageous birdie at the 15th to lay the foundation of a 3 and 2 win over club mate Ian O’Rourke.
“We came here saying it would be great to have a run this week and now one of us will be in the final. It would be nice if one of us could go all the way.”
Apart from a 20th hole win over Clonmel's Gavin Smyth on Monday morning, Knightly has hardly put a hair out of place all week, crucially eliminating title favourite Chris Selfridge in the fourth round before ousting Limerick’s Michael O’Kelly by 5 and 4 in the fifth.
“I just seem to be playing very solidly,” said Knightly, who credits Fox with the big improvement in his game this season. “Noel has helped me a huge amount and had a big impact on my game. He’s really improved the consistency of my striking and my short game. He’s a bit of a guru and an absolute gent too.”
A former member of Royal Dublin, 25-year old Coghlan now plays out of Portmarnock and credits Clontarf coaches Eamonn Brady and Bryan Omelia for the improvement in his long game and Fox for transforming his prowess with the wedges.
He was certainly impressive as he beat Castle’s Alex Gleeson on the 16th and then despatched 18-year old schoolboy Andrew Magee from Powerscourt and Dun Laoghaire by 5 and 4 in the afternoon.
Magee had been forced to birdie the last to the improving Alan Lowry of Esker Hills by one hole in the morning after the Offaly man came back from two down with three to go to square the match.
Recently graduated from Trinity with a degree in Experimental Physics, Coghlan has improved rapidly since he moved from Royal Dublin to Portmarnock, where he has struck up solid friendships and become more competitive by playing regularly alongside the likes of Stephen Walsh, Geoff Lenehan, John Greene and even Fox over the past two years.
“This is my sixth ‘South’ and every year has been a stepping stone,” Coghlan said. “Moving to Portmarnock has done a lot for my game and I work with Eamonn Brady and Bryan Omelia on my swing at Clontarf and Noel Fox has helped me with my wedge game."
As for his clash with Knightly, his housemate this week, he said: “Richard and I have been best mates since we were 12. We are best mates and have been for the last 15 years. It’ll be the friendliest semi-final ever but I’ll be going for it all guns blazing.
“I got to the quarters in the North where I lost to Chris Selfridge, who went on to win it. So having reached the last 16 in North two years ago, the quarters this year and the semis here, I’m trending the right way."
Neither man will fancy their opponent in the final with the powerfully built, 19-year old Shandon Park player Bleakley, a son of PGA professional Geoff Bleakley, crushing 2009 champion Robbie Cannon 8 and 6.
“There’s not a lot you can do about that,” Cannon said of being on the receiving end of an eagle and six birdies. “I ran into a train, unfortunately.”
Rated a 150-1 chance by the bookies before the start, Bleakley’s putter added an extra dimension to an already impressive long game and he’s dreaming of following in the footsteps of some Shandon Park greats by winning the 'South'.
“When you walk up the stairs at Shandon and see the names that have won all this, Davy Long and Neil Anderson, it would be very, very nice to add my name to that list,” said Bleakley, who is the only player to come through the draw from the first round.
His match with Cannon was over in a flash of birdies, not to mention the half in eagle threes at the second where he holed from outside 50 feet and forced the Balbriggan man to follow him in from around 25 feet for a half.
Both birdied the third and fourth before Bleakley stiff his approach at the fifth for birdie, won the next two holes in par and then birdied the eighth, ninth and 10th to go six up before closing out the match at the 12th.
“I’ve worked so hard for the last two years and it’s great to see it pay off,” said Bleakley, who works two jobs to support his golf. “I knew it was going to be tough this morning against Stephen Walsh and that Robbie was going to be tougher. But the putts just fell for me today and I am delighted with the way I have played.
“Last year I was leaving here at 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning and I’ve never been this far in anything. I'm hitting my long irons very well, keeping the ball down and hitting fairways. It helps when the putts are starting to drop."
A son of PGA teaching professional Geoff, Bleakley won’t have it easy against 21-year old Griffin, who had his first big win this year when he claimed the Headfort Senior Scratch Cup.
The Waterford man has not had to go beyond the 16th hole all week and he gave Naas’ Conor O’Rourke, who ended Arthur Pierse’s run by 5 and 4 in the morning, little room for manoeuvre with a clinical 3 and 2 victory.
“I’m just trying to keep improving every year and if I stop, then I’ll go and do the PGA,” said Griffin, who is being cheered on at Lahinch by his grandfather, Ned Kelly. “I just want to do something in golf. If I am good enough I will keep going, if not I am not going to be chasing dreams forever.
“It was scrappy today but I’m feeling good. It’s the first time I’ve been past the last 32. I’ll just keep hitting it in front of me.”
South of Ireland Amateur Open 2014
(sponsored by Clare Coast Hotels), Lahinch GC
Wednesday - Semi-finals
8:30 Eanna Griffin (Waterford) v Stuart Bleakley (Shandon Park)
8:45 Darragh Coghlan (Portmarnock) v Richard Knightly (The Royal Dublin)
Final at 2pm
Eanna Griffin (Waterford) bt Conor O’Rourke (Naas) 3/2
Stuart Bleakley (Shandon Park) bt Robert Cannon (Balbriggan) 8/6
Darragh Coghlan (Portmarnock) bt Andrew Magee (Powerscourt) 5/4
Richard Knightly (The Royal Dublin) bt Ian O’Rourke (The Royal Dublin) 3/2
TUESDAY 29TH — FIFTH ROUND
Conor O’Rourke (Naas) bt Arthur Pierse (Tipperary) 5/4
Eanna Griffin (Waterford) bt Keith Egan (Carton House) 3/2
Stuart Bleakley (Shandon Park) bt Stephen Walsh (Portmarnock) 4/3
Robert Cannon (Balbriggan) bt Barry Daly (Edmondstown) 3/2
Andrew Magee (Powerscourt) bt Alan Lowry (Esker Hills) 1 hole
Darragh Coghlan (Portmarnock) bt Alex Gleeson (Castle) 4/2
Ian O’Rourke (The Royal Dublin) bt Ed Stack (Ballybunion) 1 up
Richard Knightly (The Royal Dublin) bt Michael O’Kelly (Limerick) 5/4