Wide open out West

The picture above is not Rosses Point and the golfer on the right is not Kevin LeBlanc. It's Henrik Stenson, the current world No 2, when he played in the 2011 Masters and the man with the bag is Sligo's Jude O'Reilly.

A native of Rosses Point, Jude will caddie for 16-year old LeBlanc in this week's Radisson Blu sponsored West of Ireland Amateur Open. In fact, Dubliner LeBlanc has put €10 on himself each way at 40-1 though he's now at 33s. A good bet? "Why not. If the putts start to go in," LeBlanc says, chuckling down the line.

He's not the only one thinking that way but he's probably played more competitive golf than most of the 120-strong field teeing it up in the 36-hole strokeplay qualifier today and tomorrow.

Experience and ability will count for a lot but O'Reilly, who's worked for the likes of Christy O’Connor Jnr, Darren Clarke, Massy Kuramoto, Shigeki Maruyama and Stenson is now a golf performance mentor and he sounds impressed by the teenager from The Island.

"I like what I see," O'Reilly said in a text after their practice round at County Sligo on Thursday afternoon. "He ticks a lot of boxes. Got plenty of game for a 16-year old."

Jack Hume, the 21-year old defending champion, also has plenty of game. So does 33-year old local hope Gary McDermott, or the East of Ireland champ Colm Campbell, or Ballymena's Dermot McElroy or any one of a dozen names. 

In fact, the eagerly awaited domestic curtain-raiser has a list  of potential winners that's as long as the approach to Rosses Point's dreaded 17th when the wind is howling into your face.

Victory for 33-year old McDermott would be the first by a lifelong County Sligo member since Cecil Ewing in 1950 while Hume is well aware that the last man to retain the title was Rory McIlroy in 2006.

The weather and the unpredictability of matchplay points to a new name on the trophy and while you can make a case for familiar names such as Balbriggan’s Robbie Cannon, Muskerry’s Niall Gorey (the last two beaten finalists) or Stackstown's Richard Bridges, a growing band of young guns as well as a strong local challenge points to a new name on the trophy.

Kevin LeBlanc, when he was just 14. Picture by Pat Cashman Photography

Kevin LeBlanc, when he was just 14. Picture by Pat Cashman Photography

LeBlanc has as good a chance as any. Not only a proven winner as he showed when adding the Junior Open to back-to-back wins in the Irish Under 15 Boys Championship, he’s gone out of his way to gain experience this year.

Having represented Ireland in the Youth Olympics in China last August, he chased world ranking points early this year by entering major strokeplay events in Marbella, Mallorca and Sardinia and climbed more than 1,000 places in the World Amateur Golf Rankings as a result.

Getting O'Reilly to tote the bag and whisper words of advice and encouragement is certainly worth a shot or two a round to the tall, plus two handicapper.

“I can only learn from somebody like Jude,” said LeBlanc, who qualified but lost to William Hanna in the first round on his ‘West’ debut as a 14-year old two years ago. 

“Hopefully he can help me and I hole a few putts. But even if I have a bad week, I’ll come away from it knowing more about that game thanks to Jude. The wind and rain won’t bother me, that’s for sure.”

The leading 62 players after two rounds of strokeplay qualifying will win place in the first matchplay round on Sunday, where they will be joined Hume and Irish Close champion John-Ross Galbraith, who’ve been given byes having just returned from international duty in Argentina.

The absence of Walker Cup hopefuls and fellow internationals Gary Hurley, who is playing the R&A Scholars Tournament, and Gavin Moynihan (resting) have added to the open nature of this year's West with the aficionados insisting that this is the year the County Sligo drought ends.

Sean Flanagan, Declan Reidy, David Brady and Steffan O’Hara are all capable of beating anyone on their day and following his excellent 2014 season, Barry Anderson will be worth watching over his home course.

Perhaps the best chance of all rests with former international McDermott, who is playing in his 11th 'West'.

“Like most the field I’ll be lacking a bit of match sharpness but I’m really looking forward to it though,” said McDermott, who now works in Dublin and plays his golf at Carton House. 

“I play County Sligo on Saturday and the odd evening in Carton House so I’ve been swinging the clubs and I’ve made a few changes over the winter with Johnny Foster and Martin McTernan that I hope will bear fruit.”

Big Pat Murray has never had much luck around the Point but his class can never be discounted. And then there's the East of Ireland champion Campbell, who recently gave up work to dedicate himself to the game full time.

The 27-year old may head to Q-School and turn professional later this year and he's got high hopes of making a run in Sligo.

“I’m feeling good and my game is starting to come into shape,” said the Warrenpoint man, who fell to eventual champion Hume on the 17th in the quarters last year.

“I feel that the early tournaments I played in South Africa and Spain will give me a little bit of an edge over the field. 

“Matchplay can be funny sometimes as we all know, but if I can stay patient, I can’t see why I can’t be there to the end”

Campbell broke his championship duck by claiming the East of Ireland title last year and picked up invaluable experience as a member of the Ireland team that claimed the Home Internationals in Wales.

But Irish team mate Hume will take some beating at the storied Co Sligo links Campbell sees the Naas ace as the player to beat.

"It was nice to get my first major championship win," plus four handicapper Hume said recently. "I'm just looking forward to getting back there really. I’ve always liked the course. It's a nice place as long as the weather doesn't get too bad."

His performances in Argentina were impressive and while defending his title will bring some added pressure both he and Irish Close champion Galbraith from Whitehead have been given byes into Sunday’s first matchplay round.

"I'll approach it like I did last year,” said Hume. "It's a match play tournament so you need to be ready for every round."

The great Harry Colt links is undergoing some design changes under Pat Ruddy’s expert guidance but while just a few of those nips and tucks will be in play this year, the familiar Atlantic breezes are sure to play as important a role as ever in crowning the champion once again.

West of Ireland Amateur Open Championship (sponsored by Radisson Blu), County Sligo Golf Club, Rosses Point

36 hole strokeplay qualifying April 3-4, 2015

  1. 7.30 11.10 Gary McGrane (Royal Dublin) David Kelleher (Portmarnock) Daniel Brennan (Shannon)  
  2. 7.41 11.21 Harry Gillivan (Westport) Shane McDermott (Co Cavan) Greg O'Mahony (Lee Valley)  
  3. 7.52 11.32 Ryan O'Doherty (Enniscrone) Ian Lynch (Rosslare) Edward Ryan (Lucan)
  4. 8.03 11.43 Sean Alley (Co Tipperary) Barry Anderson (The Royal Dublin) Eoin Arthurs (Forrest Little)
  5. 8.14 11.54 Stephen Barker (Mourne) Seanie Barry (Fota Island) Ben Best (Rathmore)
  6. 8.25 12.05 Gareth Bohill (Co Louth) David Brady (Co Sligo) Jamie Fletcher (Warrenpoint)
  7. 8.36 12.16 Stephen Brady (Galway) * Richard Bridges (Stackstown) Colm Campbell Jnr (Warrenpoint)
  8. 8.47 12.27 Michael Buggy (Castlecomer) Robert J Cannon (Balbriggan) Shaun Carter (Stackstown)
  9. 8.58 12.38 Tony Cleary (Dromoland) Theo Coffey (Slieve Russell) Gary Collins (Rosslare)
  10. 9.09 12.49 Roy Connolly (Palmerstown Stud) Paul Coughlan (Moate) Stephen Coulter (Warrenpoint)
  11. 9.20 13.00 Keith Crowley (Fota Island) Colm Crowley (Woodbrook) Seamus Cullen (Slieve Russell)
  12. 9.31 13.11 Barry Daly (Edmondstown) Jamie Dick (England) Colin Fairweather (Knock)
  13. 9.42 13.22 Jack McDonnell (Forrest Little) Gerard Dunne (Co Louth) Evan Farrell (Ardee)
  14. 9.53 13.33 Jimmy Feeney (England) Alex Gleeson (Castle) Sean Flanagan (Co Sligo)
  15. 10.04 13.44 Gavin Fitzmaurice (Balcarrick) James Fox (Portmarnock) Cian Geraghty (L’town & B’town)
  16. 10.15 13.55 Jonathan Gourley (Shandon Park) Aaron Grant (Dundalk) John Greene (Portmarnock)
  17. 17 10.26 14.06 Eanna Griffin (Waterford) William Hanna (Warrenpoint) Edwin Hannon (Kanturk)
  18. 10.37 14.17 Kyle (Harmon (Wales) Stephen Healy (Carton House) John Hickey (Cork)
  19. 10.48 14.28 Ken Andre Wright (Norway) Shane Hogan (Nenagh) Daniel Holland (Castle)
  20. 10.59 14.39 Jordan Hood (Galgorm Castle) Jeff Hopkins (Royal Dublin) Mathew Kane (Whitehead)
  21. 11.10 7.30 Dale Jackson (Massereene) Joe Lyons (Galway) Ian Kettyle (Rathmore)
  22. 11.21 7.41 Stephen Kinch (Hollystown) Mark King (Cregmore Park) Richard Knightly (Royal Dublin)
  23. 11.32 7.52 Kevin Le Blanc (The Island) Geoff Lenehan (Portmarnock) Eoin Leonard (Wentworth)
  24. 11.43 8.03 James Lindsay (North West) Simon McConnell (Ballyclare) Eddie McCormack (Galway Bay)
  25. 11.54 8.14 Andrew McCormack (Newcastlewest) Gary McDermott (Carton House) Kelan McDonagh (Royal Dublin)
  26. 12.05 8.25 Dermot McElroy (Ballymena) Shane McGlynn (Hollystown) Thomas Mulligan (Co Louth)
  27. 12.16 8.36 Gavin McKenna (Fortwilliam) Tiarnan McLarnon (Massereene) James McLoughin (Portumna)
  28. 12.27 8.47 Mathew McPartlin (Carton House) Des Morgan (New Forrest) Mark Morrissey (Mount Wolesly)
  29. 12.38 8.58 Paul Murphy (Rosslare) Robert Neville (Links Portmarnock) Patrick Neville (Bearna)
  30. 12.49 9.09 Pat Murray (Limerick) Steffan O’Hara (Co Sligo) Shaun O’Connor (Carton House)
  31. 13.00 8.20 Thomas O’Connor (Athlone) Marc Nolan (Delgany) Conor O’Rourke (Naas)
  32. 13.11 9.31 Jason O’Leary (Dromoland) Jack Pierse (Portmarnock) Caolan Rafferty (Dundalk)
  33. 13.22 9.42 David Reddan (Nenagh) Michael Reid (Galgorm Castle) Declan Reidy (Co. Sligo)
  34. 13.33 9.53 John Reynolds (Dungarvan) William Russell (Clandeboye) Sean Ryan (Royal Dublin)
  35. 13.44 10.04 Paul Flynn (Tramore) Niall Gorey (Palmerstown Stud) Mark Shanahan (Castlemartyr)
  36. 13.55 10.15 Michael Sinclair (Knock) Tom Sloman (Knock) Eugene Smith (Ardee)
  37. 14.06 10.26 Kevin Stack (Dungarvan) Jamie Sutherland (Galgorm Castle) David Sutton (Lurgan)
  38. 14.17 10.37 Alan Thomas (Dungarvan) Stephen Walsh (Portmarnock) Jake Whelan (Newlands)
  39. 14.28 10.48 Devin Morley (Oughterard)* Kieran Lynch (Skibbereen) Ian Spillane (Mallow)
  40. 14.39 10.59 Ian O’Rourke (The Royal Dublin) Jonathan Yates (Naas) Gavin Young (Birr)