Defending champion Dermot McElroy saw blood, sweat and tears — literally and metaphorically — as he remained on course for his date with history in the Radisson Blu sponsored West of Ireland Amateur Open at County Sligo.
The 22-year old from Ballymena birdied five holes in a row from the 12th to beat Kinsale’s Cathal Butler 3 and 2 in the quarter-finals before being forced to finish birdie-birdie to beat the ultra-talented 17-year old Kevin LeBlanc by two holes in a spectacular quarterfinal in the afternoon.
In fact, McElroy made six birdies in a row as he opened his quarter-final match with LeBlanc with a three and finished it thus — 3-4-4-3-3-3 — in a 15mph west wind. at Rosses Point.
In total, he made 13 birdies on Monday and Paddy Power has made him the 1/2 favourite to beat the talented Naas ace Jonathan Yates in the second semi-final as he bids to become the first player to retain “the West” since Rory McIlroy in 2006.
He’s also the 6/5 favourite for the title but even if he gets past Yates, which is not going to be easy, he will face either Warrenpoint’s Colm Campbell or Castle’s Dan Holland in the decider.
Campbell ended the dream of Co Sligo’s Sean Flanagan in the afternoon, winning 3 and 2 despite a gutsy fightback by the younger Rosses Point man. But he’d been even better the morning.
The 28 year old, winner of the East in 2014, aced the 178-yard fourth wth a seven iron but had to birdie the last from 20 feet to beat Des Morgan by one hole.
Campbell was playing so well that he also parred the short ninth and birdied the 13th and 16th to play the four par-threes in just eight strokes.
“I was three under on the back,” Morgan said, shaking his head shortly after Campbell answered his birdie three from around seven feet on the 17th by canning a 20 footer for birdie on the last and a one-hole win.
“If I had been back at home it would have been dangerous,” Campbell joked of his potential bar tab after his hole in one.
Having aced the 15th in Baltray back in 2014 and won, he’s hoping lightning strikes twice.
“Hopefully it’s a good omen,” said Campbell with a big grin.
In the quarter-final with Flanagan, Campbell was equally devastating as he went four up after six holes and then made no mistakes to hold off a courageous fightback from the local boy, winning on the 16th to set up a semi-final match with 26-year old Holland from Castle.
Not only is he a full time player, Campbell also has oodles of match experience and if he’s to even dream of a late sojourn into the pro game this autumn, he must start to dominate against his peers at home and abroad.
“With playing Home Internationals and playing abroad I am getting more experience and I am able to close out matches now,” said Campbell, who lost to Pat Murray in the Irish Close semis at Seapoint, the week after his win at Baltray.
“I’ll see if I will go to Q-School and see if my game is good enough to get to that level .
If I am playing as well as I am at the moment, I will give it a rip.”
If he reaches the final, he may need a gun to put away McElroy, who took everything that Le Blanc could throw at him and still won by two holes.
Their clash was a humdinger worthy of the final itself as the youngster from The Island refused to go away, even when clearly in shock after drawing blood when hitting a middle aged Donegal man — ironically named Colm Campbell but no relation — full on the head with his approach to the 11th.
The match was level at that stage but a clearly shocked Le Blanc hit a poor chip to 30 feet as an ambulance was called.
He somehow pulled himself together to hole the putt and halve the hole but he wasn’t quite himself on the next and McElroy birdied the par-five to go ahead and never relinquished that lead.
His sand save at the 13th, where he holed a 30 footer to remain in front, was key. In truth, his short game came to the rescue when his long game faltered a few times and he got up and down for pars at the eighth, 13th, 14th and 16th, where he pitched into the bank when short sided and knocked in the seven foot putt to go up the 17th with the slimmest of leads.
Leblanc was first to hit and he found the left edge of the green, leaving himself a 50 footer to the back right pin.
McElroy’s reply was a 220-yard two iron that ran up the base of the hill and rolled back to finish two feet from the flagstick. It was a deliberate play.
“I couldn’t get a yardage to the flag,” McElroy said. “So I had 220 to the hill and it came back nicely.”
LeBlanc needed a miracle and created it by holing an unlikely 50 footer across the famous green for a half in birdie to take the match up the last. The putt never looked anywhere else but in from 10 feet out and McElroy wasn’t shocked.
“Maybe it would have affected me a few years ago,” he said.
The young Dubliner, a Junior Open champion in 2013, missed a 20 footer for birdie at the 18th and McElroy cruelly holed from 10 feet for a two-hole win that was far tighter than it looks on paper.
The victor had nothing but praise for teenager Le Blanc, who had eased past County Sligo’s Stephen Brady by 7 and 6 in the morning.
“He’s a very, very good player, very talented,” McElroy said of Le Blanc. “He didn’t really hit a bad shot. A super player with a lot of potential and a very good temperament. He will be winning these here with ease in the future.”
McElroy faces 22-year old UCD student Yates in the semifinals — his room mate last night — following the Naas man’s 6 and 5 demolition of Whitehead’s Matthew Kane.
“This is more of a surprise to other people that it is to me because I have had a few runs,” said Yates, who took Paul Dunne to the 19th in the 2013 Irish Close semi-finals at Connemara. “I have won four college events and the Midland Scratch Cup in the last year, so it has been coming.”
Yates and Holland are very much the underdogs on Tuesday but both have talent and form on their side.
A former Mullingar Scratch Trophy winner and Leinster Interprovincial, Holland came with low expectations but after 2 and 1 wins over Aaron Grant and Gavin Fitzmaurice he said: “I can do it here. It’s in me.
West of Ireland Amateur Open, County Sligo GC (in association with Radisson Blu Hotel & Spa)
SEMI-FINALS - TUESDAY, MARCH 29
- (8.00) Colm Campbell (Warrenpoint) v Daniel Holland (Castle);
- (8.15) Dermot McElroy (Ballymena) v Jonathan Yates (Naas).
QUARTER-FINALS - MONDAY, MARCH 28
- Colm Campbell (Warrenpoint) bt Sean Flanagan (Co. Sligo) 3/2
- Daniel Holland (Castle) bt Gavin Fitzmaurice (Balcarrick) 2/1
- Dermot McElroy (Ballymena) bt Kevin Le Blanc (Island) 2 holes;
- Jonathan Yates (Naas) bt Matthew Kane (Whitehead) 6/5.
THIRD ROUND - MONDAY, MARCH 28
- Sean Flanagan (Co. Sligo) bt Richard Knightly (The Royal Dublin) 2/1;
- Colm Campbell (Warrenpoint) bt Desmond Morgan (New Forest) 1 hole;
- Gavin Fitzmaurice (Balcarrick) bt Theo Coffey (Slieve Russell) 3/2;
- Daniel Holland (Castle) bt Aaron Grant (Dundalk) 2/1;
- Kevin Le Blanc (Island) bt Stephen Brady (Co. Sligo) 7/6;
- Dermot McElroy (Ballymena) bt Cathal Butler (Kinsale) 3/2;
- Jonathan Yates (Naas) bt Harry Duggan (Kilkenny) 5/4;
- Matthew Kane (Whitehead) bt Caolan Rafferty (Dundalk) 3/2.