For many sports fans golf conjures up images of millionaires dashing off to their private jets, Padraig Harrington’s mad eyes and Ian Poulter’s pea-cocking.
But real people play it for fun too and after some refreshing Walker Cup action over the weekend, real amateur golf will be at the top of the domestic agenda at this week’s AIG Cups and Shields finals over the stunning O’Meara Course at Carton House in Co Kildare.
The event used to rotate around the provinces but since last year, and for the next few years at least, it is being held at the GUI’s splendid HQ to give the teams a sense of occasion and cut back on the considerable costs the host clubs faced in catering for 20 teams and their supporters.
The jury is still out on Carton House as a venue but just as the women’s game has its Senior Cup finals, its Miele Fourballs and ILGU Cups and Shields, the AIG sponsored, five-event finale is a treat and well worth a visit.
The golf might be more Hulk Hogan than Ben Hogan at times but more often that not, the excitement levels are right up there with the best the Ryder Cup, Walker Cup or even this week’s Solheim Cup can offer in terms of excitement.
Not only are the top players the same ones who regularly contend for South of Irelands and Irish Amateur Close titles, but the average Joes that tee it up in the Pierce Purcell and Jimmy Bruen Shield can generate more drama than any Open championship finale and as many tears, bromances and man hugs.
Three putts from six feet for the win can easily result in four putts and some wobbly bottom lips.
Let’s face it. Not only are the chokes of epic proportions, the heroic moments belong in the “woman lifts car with one hand” category as 18 handicappers produce putting displays that make Jordan Spieth look like Bernhard Langer at his lowest ebb.
Of course, the St John’s Ambulance Brigade are on call to take care of those who stand to close to the danger zone — 60 yards up on the left handed is snap hook territory — as clubs seek those precious green pennants that festoon the walls of the biggest clubs in the country.
Having witnessed one such incident at Newlands in 2001 — seeing a grown man struck full on the elbow by a low screaming, Big Bertha is not for the squeamish — standing behind trees is recommended when tee shots are being hit.
We’re kidding of course, as most of the golf is incredibly impressive and the highpoint of a year’s preparation.
For many of the modest clubs, the blue riband titles such as the Irish Senior Cup or the Barton Shield will always be pipe dream.
But for others, and some of the better players who may never win an Irish championship, the AIG Cups and Shields is their big moment.
The event that is both top class but also a defining moment for players who may never win an amateur “major” is arguably the Barton Shield
Clubs are represented by two foursomes pairings playing off scratch and there could be a new name on the trophy this year with North West, that historic club in Co Donegal, taking on Galway (winners in 1999, 2007) with Royal Dublin (winners in 1924, 1925 and 1968) hoping to oust defending champions Muskerry before bidding to ended their long drought.
Royal Dublin lost to Warrenpoint in the All-Ireland semi-final on the second extra hole last year and they return hungry for success after edging past Laytown and Bettystown in Leinster with a team comprising Shaun Carter and Jeff Hopkins and Co Sligo’s Barry Anderson and Cork’s Ian O’Rourke.
“You go into the club and there’s pennants everywhere but before last year, it was 1968 since we won one,” says Connacht interprovincial Carter, who captured the Cork Stroke Play championship in May. “The team is there now and we just have to keep everybody going.”
Apart from the four who played in the Leinster final, Royal Dublin have a squad of considerable depth including Sean Ryan, Gary McGrane, Richard Knightly, Bryan McSweeney, Liam Hutchinson, Kelan McDonagh and Chris Drumm.
Muskerry ended a 61-year wait for the title last year so they know Royal Dublin will be hungry when they meet in tomorrow’s (Wed) semi-finals.
There is just one change from last year’s Muskerry squad with Shane Whooley coming in for John Waldron.
The partnership of Dave O’Donovan and Kildare man Niall Gorey appears certain with Whooley partnering Daniel Hallissey, a player who won the Junior Cup and Jimmy Bruen double with Muskerry at Shandon Park in 2007.
AIG Barton Shield, Semi-finals, Tomorrow (Wednesday) (10:30) Galway v North West; (10:48) Muskerry v Royal Dublin
AIG Jimmy Bruen Shield
It’s been a big year for Greystones Golf Club with Paul Dunne’s exploits in The Open, the US Amateur and the Walker Cup putting the Co Wicklow club on the map.
Now it’s the turn of the Jimmy Bruen Shield team to bring home a green pennant from the AIG Cups and Shields finals, where they face Connacht champions Castlebar in Friday’s semi-finals.
The team features the usual blend of youth and experience with 14-year old Ben Hynes, the grandson of team manager Sean Hynes, lining out in the Leinster final.
The side also features Pete Murray, father of Dunne’s former college coach (and Open caddie) Alan Murray.
“We paired several young lads with our more senior, experienced guys and they have knitted together very well,” said team captain Hynes. “We pride ourselves on the strength of our youth academy. You’ve seen Paul Dunne come through our ranks and these are the next generation coming through.”
Ballybunion won the Munster title at East Clare Golf Club, beating Tipperary’s Ballykisteen in the final to desire their first Jimmy Bruen for decade. The Kerry club, who first won the All Ireland title at Royal Portrush in 1979, face Fortwilliam in the semi-finals.
AIG Jimmy Bruen Shield Semi-Finals, Friday: (11:45) Castlebar v Greystones; (12:30) Ballybunion v Fortwilliam. Final: Saturday (9:00).
AIG Pierce Purcell Shield
Five foursome pairings represent each club, comprised of minimum individual handicaps of 12 and a minimum combined of 27. In short, this is the battle for the minnows and arguably the most entertaining of all the trophies for the neutrals to watch.
Leinster champions Grange will be tapping into the Ryder Cup spirit of their most famous member, Paul McGinley, with the side lead by one of McGinley’s old GAA chums in Plunkett Walsh.
While the club has produced championship winners in Leslie Walker, Paul and his brother Michael McGinley and David Sheahan, to name just a few, its last All Ireland success in the five Cups and Shields events came in the 1946 Junior Cup.
A first Leinster title since 1976, secured when Brendan Lehane and John Nolan won on the 19th against Royal Tara in the Leinster final at Portarlington, has sparked Cups and Shields fever in the foothills of Kilmashogue in Rathfarnham
The Dubliner’s face Thurles in the semi-finals on Thursday with the Tipperary club looking to repeat their All Ireland success of 1997 at Dundalk.
Beaten bt Spanish Point, who went on to retain the All Ireland title, in las year’s Munster final, Thurles ended a 12-year Pierce Purcell wait with victory over Newcastlewest.
The winners of the Grange-Thurles clash will take on Co Monaghan’s Nuremore or Connacht champions Gort, who won the All Ireland title at Lisburn in 2003.
AIG Pierce Purcell Shield Semi-Finals, Thursday: (8:00) Grange v Thurles; (8:45) Nuremore v Gort. Final: Friday (10:30).
AIG Junior Cup
There’s a lot of excitement at Douglas as the club bids to end a 16-year wait and bring home the fifth All Ireland title in its 106-year history.
Greenisland stand in the way in tomorrow’s AIG Junior Cup semi-finals but having come through a tough qualification examination in Munster — four matches in the South Munster qualifiers before the Munster semi-final and final — they are clearly going to be tough to beat.
Six of the eight strong panel are under 19 and veterans of last year’s Munster winning Fred Daly team.
Add to that the fact that team captain, Derek Byrne knows what it takes to win the green pennant having played in the side that won the club’s third Junior Cup in 1999 and you have all the ingredients a winning team might need.
Byrne’s assistants include former international Eavan Higgins and the club professional Stephen Hayes. And with a side comprising John Boylan, Adam McSweeney, Barry O’Sullivan Geaney, Darren Hourihan, Pierce Dorney and Philip Quinn, they will be hard to stop.
In the other half of the draw, Dundalk face Westport having bridged a 21-year gap with victory in Leinster.
The decisive match against Clontarf went to the 19th with Richard Newell emerging as the hero for the Louth men. It was his third win of the weekend as Dundalk came through against Hermitage and Woodbrook in the earlier rounds.
It is now more than 10 years since a Leinster club captured the All-Ireland but it’s been even longer for Westport, who won their Junior cup title at Lahinch in 1980.
That said, the competition has been good to Connacht clubs in recent years with Ballina winning in 2008 and Portumna in 2010.
— AIG Junior Cup Semi-Finals, Wednesday (11:06) Dundalk v Westport; (11:51) Greenisland v Douglas. Final: Thursday (10:45).
AIG Senior Cup
It’s almost like going from the frying pan into the fire if you are a member of Limerick Golf Club’s Senior Cup team.
The Munster champions play the Ulster champions Knock, led by recent South of Ireland finalist and new Irish cap Colin Fairweather, in second of Friday’s semi-finals at Carton’s O’Meara Course on Friday.
Even if they see off Fairweather and his lieutenants in the shape of the highly experience former international and championship winner Michael Sinclair, James McVicker, Simon Miskelly, James Patterson and James Rodgers, they will face an even bigger task in the final.
Athlone’s Tom O’Connor, Niall Carroll, Colm Fitzgerald, Kevin Sheehy and Conor Rice will be tough opponents if they pull off a shock and beat whatever side Maynooth University decides to field.
The Limerick line up is not exactly lacking in talent with Mike Reddan, Pat Murray, Mike O’Kelly, Darragh Fitzgerald and former Challenge Tour professional Justin Kehoe, winning the Munster title against Monkstown at Dungarvan.
With Mark MacGrath’s departing recently to the University of New Mexico on a golf scholarship, it remains to be seen if 17 year old Ciaran Vaughan travels to Co Kildare.
However, it’s Maynooth who are regarded as the hot favourites and while recent graduate and Walker Cup player Gary Hurley will be at the first stage of the European Tour Q-School, it remains to be seen who tees it up given that they also have to send a team to the European University Games in Switzerland.
Even if East and South of Ireland champion Stuart Grehan, international Robin Dawson or the likes of Sean Flanagan or Mullingar Scratch Cup winner Alan Lowry are unavailable, Maynooth can still call on other top players such as Kyle McCarron, Jack Walsh, Stephen Kinch or Ronan Mullarney.
It’s Limerick’s 16th trip to the All Ireland finals since 1967 but have won just four times with the first win only coming at the fourth attempt in 1976 and the others in 1980, 1982 and 2002.
Maynooth won their first Senior Cup in the Leinster final with Dawson, Grehan, Lowry, Mullarney and Flanagan seeing off Portmarnock.
“Through nine holes we were dead and buried,” Lowry said. “We had one match up and I was all square and the other matches were down. We showed great character.”
AIG Senior Cup Semi-finals, Friday (08:00) Athlone v Maynooth University; (8:45) Knock v Limerick. Final: Saturday (10:30).