Tackling the amateur golf scheduling puzzle
Spectators at the West of Ireland Championship

Spectators at the West of Ireland Championship

Anyone who has ever tried to play the traditional game of "Pick Up Sticks" knows that diving into the pile to move one unit inevitably leads to disaster.

Make too sudden a move in a rush of blood to the head and you have to start all over again, undoing all your previous efforts.

Setting out the amateur golfing calendar, which requires co-operation with all the Home Unions as well as the R&A, the USGA and the European Golf Association, is as delicate an operation and every bit as complex and infuriating as a game of Mikado.

The problem rears its head in Ireland when our major provincial men's championship clash or overlap in some way with other big events in England, Scotland or Wales, reducing the quality of the fields at home.

It's impossible to keep everyone happy and with Ireland's four provincial championships taking place around traditional Bank holiday dates, moving them around is not recommended.

"It is very difficult," says Mark Wehrly, the GUI's Championships Manager. "The traditional dates of the North, South, East and West are there for more than just getting the best field. They are public holidays. 

"Another factor is that while the average age of the entrant in the Irish Amateur Open is 22, the average age of the entrants in the North, South, East and West would be 27-28, which is a very different profile of golfer.

"There hasn't been any major discussion between the four provincial championships as to how to optimise their fields or anything like that. But they have all taken steps to try and get more top quality players."

The average age at the Irish Amateur Open is 22. In the North, South, East and West it’s 27-28

An example of the complexity of the schedule is the future date of the Irish Amateur Open, which is scheduled for Royal County Down from May 11-14.

The event will again be played in May in 2018 and 2019 but then move to August in 2020-21 as part of a new rotation that will allow the GUI to hold the Irish Amateur Open on a parkland course two out of every four years in August and on a links course in May.

The date of the Irish Close Championship is also set for change to bring it into line with the other Home Nations.

Currently, three of the four Close Championships are played on the same date as the South of Ireland. But the Irish Amateur Close is moving to the August bank holiday in 2018.

The sandwiching of the East of Ireland Championship between the Scottish Amateur Open and the St Andrew Links Trophy and it's move from three days to four appears to please nobody.

Not only do the best Irish players spend a fortnight in Scotland rather than tee it up at County Louth, the decision to start on a Friday has merely annoyed the working amateurs who now have to take an extra day's holiday.

Amateur golf still draws a crowd

Amateur golf still draws a crowd

Moving it to May would make it very difficult to avoid a clash with the Irish Amateur Open, the Lytham Trophy and the Welsh Amateur Open and the truth is that the advent of cheaper air travel and the attraction of World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR) points has changed the golfing landscape.

"Years ago there were only six championships that everyone played," Wehrly said. "Now there are so many other things. It's impossible to give everyone a clear run. 

"If you moved the East or the West from their current bank holiday weekends they could be worse off that they are currently. It is hard to do something without jeopardising something else."

As for the chase for WAGR points, the GUI is aware that the the low Category ranking of many Irish Championships is affecting their popularity with the top players, who make bigger leaps by playing higher ranked events, similar to the system used in professional golf.

"There is a perception that WAGR has adversely affected our championships and it's a perception we have made the R&A aware of and something they need to take into consideration," Wehrly added. 

"But WAGR is very important to the top players and it matters when to comes to entry into the biggest amateur events, such as the British Amateur Championship."

Making sure they are looking after the interests of both the elite players and the working amateur is a difficult balancing act and a thankless task for the GUI, which is conscious of the need to avoid marginalising one group or another. 

"We come in for flak for scheduling things that make it very difficult for somebody who is in full-time employment to play championship golf," Wehrly said when asked about the decisions to extend the East and Irish Amateur Open from three to four days.

"The four-day East was something Leinster would have to give their rationale om. The four-day Irish Amateur is because there are more international players [seeking more golf with a 54-hole cut]. 

Some young fans at County Sligo for the "West"

Some young fans at County Sligo for the "West"

"The Close is going back to a much more attractive day as far as a working amateur is concerned from next year. So that's a positive step."

As for coming up with formats that promote more attacking play, which might suit budding tour players, the jury is out.

A two-year experiment with 72-hole medal play for the Irish Close in 2011 and 2012 resulted in an immediate demand for it to go back to the old format.

As for the possibility of introducing a 54-hole strokeplay, 16-man matchplay format popular in some countries, Wehrly said: "We've looked at that. I am quite interested in that format, and it was put out there as something that would have a WAGR boost, but that's not the case. It would be treated the same as a 36-64 event." 

Keeping both the full-time amateurs and working amateurs happy is no easy balance.

"There is an incongruity in some of the criticism we receive to our approach to scheduling," Wehrly said. 

"On the one hand, we are criticised for scheduling things that don't optimise the field strength of events and on the other hand they will criticise us for marginalising amateur golfers who are in full-time employment.  It is a difficult circle to square. 

"There is a perception that we are not fulfilling a role in preparing elite amateurs for the tour, which isn't a role that the GUI has. 

"If we were to try and do that, then everything should be strokeplay. And if we were to do that, it would be something we would be doing in ignorance of 95 percent of our championship fields."

As GUI CEO Pat Finn said in Sligo during the West of Ireland Championship, "You can't run 80 tournaments and send squads and teams away to 40 events overseas, coach over 700 golfers in the country every year and not impact on a player's pathway to the European Tour."