They’re 17, 20 and 22-years old and with respect to more seasoned players like Colm Campbell, Des Morgan or Dan Holland or newcomers to top level such as Jonathan Yates, Caolan Rafferty or Cathal Butler, they will be worth watching at Rosses Point on Monday.
Kevin Le Blanc, the former Junior Open champion from The Island, is gunning to become the youngest West of Ireland champion since Rory McIlroy won aged 16 a decade ago.
The rangy 17-year old has been more concerned with his school books that birdies this year as he prepares to sit his Leaving Cert in June.
But after coming back from two down after nine with five wins in a row to beat Hollystown’s Stephen Kinch 3 and 2, he made himself one of the clear title contenders when he killed off a comeback by Castle international Alex Gleeson down the stretch with an 18th green birdie securing a one up win.
“I was just trying to die it in,” LeBlanc admitted after his 20 foot, right to left birdie putt fell in the side door, making Gleeson’s eight footer for par irrelevant.
“He’d holed a few putts and was bound to miss one, especially under pressure on the last, so I just wanted to lag it down so to see it go in was a big relief.
“It’s unreal. I’m delighted to beat Alex. A super player. One of the top amateurs in Ireland.”
Gleeson had won the 14th with a huge birdie putt and 15th in par to get back to level the match before halving the 16th by dropping a 12 footer down the hill. But LeBlanc, a former Junior Open champion and boys international, showed true grit down the stretch that might quieten the critics who say he is not a good match player.
“I had a good record and then lost a few matches, so people started saying I was a bad matchplay player,” Le Blanc said with a shrug. “I think I’m a good match player to be honest.”
He’ll need to be today as he faces Co Sligo’s Stephen Brady — aka the giant-killer following his win over champion Jack Hume last year.
The local man gave repeat performance yesterday when he saw off North of Ireland champion and Irish international John Ross Galbraith 3 and 2 before beating Rathmore’s Ben Best 2 and 1.
The strong man in the bottom half of the draw remains 20-year defending champion Dermot McElroy from Ballymena, who is trying to become the first player since his Rory McIlroy in 2006 to retain the title.
“I'd really like to win it again and match Rory,” McElroy said after comfortable wins over Stephen Healy and Dwayne Mallon left him to face Kinsale’s Cathal Butler, who surprised Naas’ Conor O’Rourke 2 and 1 in the second round.
“I feel I am playing really well. I just need the putter to warm up.”
McElroy has always been something of an enigma — a wonderful golfer with an erratic, volcanic temperament that changes in rhythm with his putting stroke.
If the putts are falling, he’s a sweet-swinging and easygoing. But if the blade misbehaves, he gets down on himself.
This partly explains why he’s won just one senior Major — last year’s West. And it also explains why he was so disappointed not to win the Close at Royal Portrush in 2012 (he shot 83-68 on the final day and finished nine behind Chris Selfridge) or the Irish Amateur Open in 2013, when he missed out on the playoff between Gavin Moynihan and Robbie Cannon by one.
He’s already changed putter three times this year.
“When you are playing well, everything seems easy,” he said on Saturday when asked if he paid much attention to the mental game. “I suppose I could work on it big time. I don’t. It could be an option though. I am considering it because the frustration is building up.”
As a player with ambitions to turn professional and join former team mates Gary Hurley, Paul Dunne, Gavin Moynihan, Selfridge and Moynihan, McElroy needs to convert his great play into more wins.
“I want to win, I don’t want to be finishing in the top 10 because I have been doing that for years.” he said. “I am playing well and putting terrible and finishing 10th and 15th…. I feel I should have a couple more championships but a couple have slipped by like the Irish Amateur a few years back. But I love it here. The course really suits me. The way I am playing. I fancy my chances.”
Many fancied Stuart Grehan chances too but he could’t add the West to his East and South of Ireland win.
Having won in the morning, the Tullamore star was undone by County Sligo’s 20 year old “great white hope”, Sean Flanagan who dreams of following in the footsteps of illustrious former champions like McIlroy.
The Rosses Point native recalls watching the Holywood star give a Junior clinic before one of his West wins and standing slack-jawed as the young maestro showed off his skills on the practice ground near the 18th.
After leading the qualifying for the second year in arow — something McIlroy never achieved in his four appearances in the event — Flanagan can’t help dreaming of seeing his name in gold letters on the board in the foyer of the club.
It’s something that 2005 and 2006 winner McIlroy himself mentioned in a private video message sent to the members yesterday, apologising for missing the traditional dinner for champions of the previous decades and recalling his “very fond memories of the West and of County Sligo.
“I remember him showing is this 7.5 degree driver with an extra stiff shaft, saying it helped him keep the ball low. Then he hit this drive and he just launched into miles in the air with so much hang time, it was incredible. You just knew this guy was special.”
After coming back from two down after nine to beat Fota Island’s Sean Barry on the 18th in the morning, Flanagan’s one hole win over Grehan was special too.
Grehan started slowly and had to birdie the ninth just to be two down. He then lost the 11th to a par before birdies at the 14th and 15th left him just one down with three to go.
Flanagan bunkered his tee shot at the 16th but holed a clutch six footer for par to remain in front and then safely parred the last for victory after Grehan had overshot the green and failed to chip in, playing a miraculous recovery to a few feet.
"|t would be amazing — a big goal of mine,” Flanagan said of a possible home win as well-wishers came up to clap him on the back. “But we will take it one step at a time.”
Focussing will be a challenge for Flanagan, who now faces a tough third round clash with Royal Dublin’s Richard Knightly, a former South of Ireland semi-finalist, with the winner to face Des Morgan or international Colm Campbell in a top half that also features the dangerous Castle man Daniel Holland.
Casual followers may spot a surprise winner in Naas Jonathan Yates, who has worked harder than ever on his game in recent months and now faces Kilkenny’s Harry Duggan for a place in the quarter-finals with Dundalk’s Caolan Rafferty once again involved in the latter stages of a championship following a 19th hole comeback win against Portmarnock’s James Fox.
Rafferty now faces Whitehead’s Matthew Kane, who also came back from an early deficit to beat former South of Ireland champion Stuart Bleakley4 and 3.
ROUND THREE - MONDAY, MARCH 28
- 8:00 Sean Flanagan (Co. Sligo) v Richard Knightly (The Royal Dublin)
- 8:10 Colm Campbell (Warrenpoint) v Desmond Morgan (New Forest)
- 8:20 Theo Coffey (Slieve Russell) v Gavin Fitzmaurice (Balcarrick)
- 8:30 Daniel Holland (Castle) v Aaron Grant (Dundalk)
- 8:40 Kevin Le Blanc (Island) v Stephen Brady (Co. Sligo)
- 8:50 Dermot McElroy (Ballymena) v Cathal Butler (Kinsale)
- 9:00 Jonathan Yates (Naas) v Harry Duggan (Kilkenny)
- 9:10 Caolan Rafferty (Dundalk) v Matthew Kane (Whitehead).
ROUND TWO - SUNDAY, MARCH 27
- S Flanagan (Co. Sligo) bt S Grehan (Tullamore) 1h;
- R Knightly (The Royal Dublin) bt N McKinstry (Cairndhu) 3/2;
- C Campbell (Warrenpoint) bt R Mullarney (Galway) 6/5;
- D Morgan (New Forest) bt S O’Connor (Castlebar) 1h;
- T Coffey (Slieve Russell) bt S Carter (The Royal Dublin)1h;
- G Fitzmaurice (Balcarrick) bt G Dunne (Co. Louth) 19th;
- D Holland (Castle) bt C Crowley (Woodbrook) 4/3;
- A Grant (Dundalk) bt W Russell (Clandeboye) 1h;
- K Le Blanc (Island) bt A Gleeson (Castle) 1h;
- S Brady (Co. Sligo) bt B Best (Rathmore) 2/1
- D McElroy (Ballymena) bt D Mallon (Dungannon) 4/3;
- C Butler (Kinsale) bt C O’Rourke (Naas) 2/1;
- J Yates (Naas) bt S Cullen (Slieve Russell) 1h;
- H Duggan (Kilkenny) bt R Connolly (Carton House) 6/5;
- C Rafferty (Dundalk) bt J Fox (Portmarnock) 19th;
- M Kane (Whitehead) bt S Bleakley (Shandon Park) 4/3.
ROUND ONE - SUNDAY, MARCH 27
- S Flanagan (Co. Sligo) bt S Barry (Fota Island) 1h;
- S Grehan (Tullamore) bt T McLarnon (Massereene) 2/1
- R Knightly (The Royal Dublin) bt S Ryan (The Royal Dublin) 1h;
- N McKinstry (Cairndhu) bt J Greene (Portmarnock) 1h;
- R Mullarney (Galway) bt S Coulter (Warrenpoint) 5/4;
- C Campbell (Warrenpoint) bt B Kelly (Esp) 4/3;
- S O’Connor (Castlebar) bt L Grehan (Mullingar) 1h;
- D Morgan (New Forest) bt A Gaynor (Co. Sligo) 4/3;
- S Carter (The Royal Dublin) bt E Griffin (Waterford) 6/4;
- T Coffey (Slieve Russell) bt A Lowry (Esker Hills) 4/2;
- G Dunne (Co. Louth) bt C Feeney (Co. Sligo) 5/3;
- G Fitzmaurice (Balcarrick) bt B Anderson (The Royal Dublin) 22nd;
- D Holland (Castle) bt M Wylie (Por) 5/4;
- C Crowley (Woodbrook) bt B Daly (Edmondstown) 1h;
- A Grant (Dundalk) bt A Morris (Belvoir Park) 2/1;
- W Russell (Clandeboye) bt P Coughlan (Moate) 3/1;
- K Le Blanc (Island) bt S Kinch (Hollystown) 3/2;
- A Gleeson (Castle) bt I O’Rourke (The Royal Dublin) 2/1;
- B Best (Rathmore) bt M Shanahan (Castlemartyr) 1h;
- S Brady (Co. Sligo) bt JR Galbraith (Whitehead) 3/2;
- D Mallon (Dungannon) bt G Collins (Rosslare) 3/2;
- D McElroy (Ballymena) bt S Healy (Carton House) 6/4;
- C Butler (Kinsale) bt J Fletcher (Warrenpoint) 4/3;
- C O’Rourke (Naas) bt W Hanna (Kilkeel) 6/4;
- J Yates (Naas) bt D Reidy (Co. Sligo) 4/2;
- S Cullen (Slieve Russell) bt T Hackett (The Royal Dublin) 3/1;
- H Duggan (Kilkenny) v C O’Donnell (Castletroy) 2/1;
- R Connolly (Carton House w/o N Gorey (Palmerstown Stud;
- J Fox (Portmarnock) bt T Cleary (Woodstock) 2/1,
- C Rafferty (Dundalk) bt J Pierse (Portmarnock) 1h;
- S Bleakley (Shandon Park) bt K Stack (Dungarvan) 4/3;
- M Kane (Whitehead) bt E McCormack (Galway Bay) 1h.