Rory McIlroy might be in action in windy Texas but his golfing heart strings will feel the tug of the annual West of Ireland Championship which gets under way at a revamped Rosses Point today.
The classic links at County Sligo Golf Club was where McIlroy spectacularly burst onto the golfing scene with that 2005 West win as a mere 15 year old and retained it the following year.
There is a host of great players lined up for the start of the title chase today, headed by Maynooth University’s Stuart Grehan and his bid for an East-South-West of Ireland hat-trick last achieved by Joe Carr in 1948.
But in reality it is the course that is the big protagonist.
With the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open on the lookout for new venues now that McIlroy and his Rory Foundation are the hosts, the links is in the process of being totally revamped by golf architect Pat Ruddy.
The changes are already being spoken about in terms of the challenge they would present a top international field and some of them, when finished, might only be playable for top professional on a spring or summer’s day.
“When is the Irish Open coming here?” tweeted Jude O’Reilly, a Rosses Point native who caddied for Christy O’Connor Jnr, Shigeki Matsuyama and Henrik Stenson. “Test the best with those changes!”
#8 New Tee in play wind against today ..great Par 5 !— Jude O'Reilly (@JudeOReilly) March 24, 2016
(This pic is almost 100y off the tee) pic.twitter.com/BFdg5X28S3
No fewer than nine of the first 12 holes have been enhanced by Ruddy, a Sligo native who admits he always looked at the Harry Colt’s great links “with lover’s eyes”.
While the new green complex at the par-five third will not be in play — it extends the hole some 60 yards towards the small, white coastguard’s hut — new fairway traps at the second, fifth, sixth, seventh and 12th force players to think before pressing the launch button while the extended greens complete at the 10th potentially adds more than 30 yards to that hole. A new tee was also in play at the eighth in practice on Thursday, making that hole some 20-25 yards longer.
The first changes were in play last year, such as the extended green and new bunkers at the first. But while Grehan missed that championship — his record in a missed cut on countback and a first round loss — he’s a far better player now and he's determined to wrest the title from Irish team mate Dermot McElroy of Ballymena, who is the bookies’ favourite.
Only Joe Carr, who won all three in 1948, managed to hold the East, South and West of Ireland titles at the same time.
But following his wins at County Louth and Lahinch last year, 23-year old Tullamore native Grehan has set his sights on adding to his trophy collection in the shadow of great Ben Bulben.
"I still have a year and a half to go in Maynooth so we will see what happens when I finish but I would really love to make the Walker Cup team in 2017 and the St Andrews Trophy this year," said Grehan, who is loving his time in Maynooth having struggled to adapt on a brief sojourn to Michigan a few years ago.
"Obviously the Irish team is a goal this year and the European six-man team. If I keep progressing the way I am progressing, I have a great chance but I just have to keep my head down and keep doing what I am doing.
"The Walker Cup is a big goal of mine and I am putting the work now so that it will stand to me and I can have a chance of making that team.
"I have no plans to turn professional just yet and I don’t have a definite plan. I will be amateur for the next year and half or two years and after that I will have a fair idea of where I stand and the standard of my game and how my scores stack up against other players."
It won’t be easy with the likes McElroy or his Irish team mates Alex Gleeson and John Ross Galbraith just a couple of the top players more than capable of going all the way.
Warrenpoint's Colm Campbell, Irish champion Tiarnan McLarnon, Robin Dawson, Pat Murray, Kevin Le Blanc and Conor O'Rourke are all formidable performance so the competition will be fierce with seven County Sligo players headed by last year’s leading qualifier and beaten semi-finalist Sean Flanagan and perennial contender Gary McDermott. Then there's last year's beaten finalist Eanna Griffin, the Mullingar Scratch Trophy holder Alan Lowry or the ever improving Jonathan Yates.
While many had hoped to see Walker Cup player and 2014 winner Jack Hume return as the world No. 13, the Naas player’s absence is good news for Paddy Harrington Scholarship student Grehan, who will be playing his fifth event since January and his sixth since a trip to the US in late December.
Having finished runner-up to Hume in the South African Amateur Championship, where he shot a 62 in the second round, Grehan was named alongside Hume, Gleeson and Galbraith in the 2016 GB&I squad that will compete for the St Andrews Trophy this year and next year’s Walker Cup, he’s setting his sights high.
“I think my game has matured in the last six or eight months and even when I am not playing my best I can still get around in a decent score," Grehan said. "U’ve sharpened up my game in all areas but my I’ve also got a lot more belief and that’s because I also work on my mental game with my coach, Eamonn O’Flanagan. We’ve been working on it for 18 months at this stage."
With the list of West of Ireland champions a who's who of Irish golf from amateur stars JB Car, Cecil Ewing, John Burke, Mark Gannon, Declan Branigan and Garth McGimpsey to future professionals such as Des Smyth, Pádraig Harrington, Shane Lowry and McIlroy, it's a coveted title
"It would be great to win it," Grehan said. "There are some unbelievable names on that trophy and I think I have a good chance — my game is in good shape and I have prepared well. So I will see what happens tomorrow afternoon.
"Dermot is the favourite and I will be keeping a close on on him tomorrow because we're playing together. But to be honest, there’s a very good field and anyone can win with matchplay. It’s anyone’s game. You just have to play good golf all week long but I enjoy the head to head combat of matchplay especially after Lahinch last year, so hopefully we can have a good week.”
The 132-strong field will play two rounds of stroke play today and tomorrow with the leading 64 players making the first round of matchplay combat on Sunday with the final scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
West of Ireland Amateur Open, in association with Radisson Blu Hotel & Spa, County Sligo GC (Par 71)
Shotgun start - Friday (Saturday)
- Hole 1 J Lyons (Galway), D Mallon (Dungannon), K McCarron (North West);
- Hole 2 E O'Donovan (Craddockstown), H Duggan (Kilkenny), P McCarville (Clones);
- Hole 3 K Le Blanc (Island), G Lenehan (Portmarnock), A Lowry (Esker Hills);
- Hole 4 C Hughes (Galway), M Kane (Whitehead), P Kane (Ashbourne);
- Hole 4a P Kerr (Royal Portrush), S Kinch Hollystown), R Knightly (Royal Dublin);
- Hole 5 S Hogan (Nenagh), D Holland (Castle), J Hood (Galgorm Castle);
- Hole 6 L Grehan (Mullingar), Eanna Griffin (Waterford), T Hackett (Royal Dublin);
- Hole 6a W Hanna (Kilkeel), S Healy (Carton House), J Hickey (Cork);
- Hole 7 N Gorey (Palmerstown Stud), A Grant (Dundalk), J Greene (Portmarnock);
- Hole 8 J Fletcher (Warrenpoint), J Fox (Portmarnock), C Geraghty (Laytown & Bettystown);
- Hole 9 S Flanagan (Co Sligo), A Gleeson (Castle), JR Galbraith (Whitehead);
- Hole 10 R Dutton (Tandragee), A Fahy (Bray), G Fitzmaurice (Balcarrick);
- Hole 11 Reserved;
- Hole 12 C Feeney (Co Sligo), A Gaynor (Co Sligo), R Hynes (Royal Dublin);
- Hole 12a R Dawson (Tramore), C Dullaghan (Greenore), G Dunne (Co Louth);
- Hole 13 P Coughlan (Moate), S Coulter (Warrenpoint), N Crawford (Mourne);
- Hole 13a C Crowley (Woodbrook), S Cullen (Slieve Russell), Barry Daly (Edmondstown);
- Hole 14 T Collins (Dun Laoghaire), R Connolly (Carton House), John Conroy (Bray);
- Hole 15 T Coffey (Slieve Russell), D Coghlan (Portmarnock), G Collins (Rosslare);
- Hole 16 D Brady (Co Sligo), D Brophy (Castleknock), C Butler (Kinsale);
- Hole 16a C Campbell (Warrenpoint), S Carter (Royal Dublin), T Cleary (Woodstock);
- Hole 17 C O'Donnell (Castletroy), S Brady (Co Sligo), R Brazill (Naas)
- Hole 18 S Barry (Fota Island), B Best (Rathmore), S Bleakley (Shandon Park)
- Hole 1 C McCaughey (Dungannon), D McElroy (Ballymena), S Grehan (Tullamore);
- Hole 2 B Kelly (RFEG), B Doran (Palmerstown Stud) Claudio Consul (Ger);
- Hole 3 B Anderson (Royal Dublin), A McCormack (Newcastle West), Gavin Young (Nenagh);
- Hole 4 D Flynn (Carton House), J Whelan (Newlands), J Sutherland (Galgorm Castle);
- Hole 4a C Woodroofe (Blainroe), J Yates (Naas), R Williamson (Holywood);
- Hole 5 R Steedman (Courtown), M Wylie (Portuga), E Stack (Ballybunion);
- Hole 6 M Shanahan (Castlemartyr), P Sheehan (Ballybunion), M Sinclair (Knock);
- Hole 6a E Smith (Ardee), M Dallat (Ballycastle), K Stack (Dungarvan);
- Hole 7 D Reidy (Co Sligo), W Russell (Clandeboye), S Ryan (Royal Dublin);
- Hole 8 M Reddan (Limerick), D Reddan (Nenagh), M Reid (Galgorm Castle);
- Hole 9 M Power (Kilkenny), C Purcell (Portmarnock), C Rafferty Dundalk);
- Hole 10 I O'Rourke (Royal Dublin), C O'Rourke (Naas), J Pierse (Portmarnock);
- Hole 11 Reserved;
- Hole 12 A Myles (Newlands), P Neville (Bearna), R Neville (The Links Portmarnock);
- Hole 12a T O'Connor (Athlone), S O'Hara (Co Sligo), J O'Leary (Dromoland);
- Hole 13 D Morley (Oughterard), M Morrissey (Mount Wolseley), R Mullarney (Galway);
- Hole 13a T Mulligan (Co Louth), P Murray (Limerick), B Murray (Waterford Castle);
- Hole 14 D Morgan (New Forest), A Morris (Belvoir Park), D Murphy (Portarlington);
- Hole 15 N McKinstry (Cairndhu), T McLarnon (Massereene), D Lowry (Corballis Links);
- Hole 16 E McCormack (Galway Bay), G McDermott (Carton House), J McDonnell (Forrest Little);
- Hole 16a S McGlynn (Portmarnock), G McKenna (Fortwilliam), M McKinstry Cairndhu);
- Hole 17 P McCarthy (Mallow), J McCarthy (Stackstown), K McCormack (Portarlington);
- Hole 18 D O'Neill (Carton House), S O'Connor (Castlebar), F Kennedy (Island).