The GUI has taken a serious grip on boosting the importance of Ireland's historic amateur events by landing tyre manufacturing giants Bridgestone as the first sponsor of its men's and boys' Orders of Merit.
The men's Willie Gill Perpetual Award expanded in recent years to include up 20 events — the eight main provincial and national championships plus another 12 international events.
But with fields suffering at home as our leading players concentrated on chasing World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR) points abroad — last year's Willie Gill winner John Ross Galbraith (now a professional) won all his points outside Ireland — the new "Bridgestone Order of Merit" will be decided on the eight "home" events alone with the top two players guaranteed selection for the Home International team.
The GUI feared that its new selection criteria (click here) might not have gone far enough in offering just two automatic spots to top finishers in the new "Bridgestone Order of Merit". But that may change in future and become more adventurous should this season's selection process prove successful.
The Bridgestone Order of Merit will resemble its original 1970s format and be limited to the big eight domestic championships — the Flogas Irish Amateur Open, AIG Irish Close, East of Ireland, West of Ireland, South of Ireland, North of Ireland and the Munster and Connacht Stroke Play Championships.
The hope is that it will encourage more "elite" players to play at home, strengthening those fields and boosting the number of WAGR points on offer for all.
Bridgestone will also sponsor the "Bridgestone Boys International Order of Merit", set up in 2016, for performances by U 18 players in nine international Boys events.
Colm Conyngham, Marketing and Public Relations Manager for Bridgestone Tyres in Ireland said: “Bridgestone is delighted to announce a new partnership with the Golfing Union of Ireland, The Bridgestone Order of Merit and The Bridgestone Boys International Order of Merit.
"As Ireland is arguably one of the most successful golfing nations on the planet, it is logical for Bridgestone, a significant supporter of international golf, to become involved in supporting golf in this country. We hope our support for emerging golf talent can play some role in helping Ireland to remain centre stage in international golf in the future.”
Bridgestone has a long association with golf internationally including the Bridgestone Invitational in Akron — won by Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry — and through its golf equipment company, Bridgestone Golf.
More recently in Ireland and the UK, Bridgestone Tyres has sponsored events on the European Challenge Tour including The Northern Ireland Open, The Bridgestone Challenge (UK) and has also been an official partner of the European Tour’s British Masters.
Bridgestone Order of Merit
- March 28-3 April — West of Ireland Championship, Co Sligo
- May 5-6 — Munster Stroke Play Championship, Cork
- May 17-20 — Flogas Irish Amateur Open Championship, Royal County Down
- June 2-4 — East of Ireland Amateur Open Championship, Co Louth
- June 9-10 — Connacht Stroke Play Championship, Portumna
- July 25-29 — South of Ireland Amateur Open Championship, Lahinch
- July 9-13 — North of Ireland Amateur Open Championship, Royal Portrush
- August 4-8 — AIG Irish Amateur Close Championship, The European Club
The partnership between Bridgestone and the GUI is initially for one year though Bridgestone say it is keen to make it a long-term relationship.
Bridgestone is also an Olympic Games sponsor and it wants to extend its association with golf and connect with the Olympic Council of Ireland ahead of the 2020 games in Tokyo.
Speaking at GUI HQ in Carton House yesterday, Mr Conyngham added: "We'd love to provide up and coming talent with support and give them greater recognition as they start out on their journey. In the future, we'd also love to see those names referenced back to when they won the Bridgestone Order of Merit."
Pat Finn, Chief Executive of the GUI, said they were thrilled to welcome Bridgestone to their family of partners as sponsors of the Orders of Merit, highlighting their existence.
"Tiger Woods won back to back US Amateurs before he turned pro [Woods won three in a row from 1994-96], and he's quoted as having said you shouldn't really consider turning pro unless you are the top amateur in your country for two years. [Joking to the three senior panellists present].... Guys!
"If you look at the Order of Merit winners, three players — Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy — won back-to-back Willie Gill Awards, now the Bridgestone Order of Merit. So this partnership allows us to bring more attention to the Order of Merit."
He added: "It creates a lovely link between elite amateur level, and underage amateur level, right through to the top.
"Shane and Rory have played in all the events and one of our up and coming young stars, Mark Power, has won back-to-back Boys International Orders of Merit in the first two years of its existence.
"This is a pathway right through to Challenge Tour events and the Bridgestone Invitational itself.
"Funding in golf, and all sports, it is always a challenge and the sponsorship fee will help us do what we do, which is to send more players away overseas and provide more coaching.
"It helps ensure we can continue to do what we do as membership numbers drop and our main funding source comes under pressure."
Three senior panel members — Alex Gleeson from Castle, Dundalk's Caolan Rafferty and Galway's Ronan Mullarney — were on hand to answer questions and while none could say exactly how many "home" events they will play this year, all three are committed to teeing it up here when not competing abroad.
Gleeson is a product of the Boys international scene and he pointed out that those events proved crucial when it came to discovering the standard required to compete against the best in the world.
"I haven't done a schedule for the entire year yet but I will definitely be playing the West and the Irish Amateur Open," said Gleeson, winner of the AIG Irish Amateur Close at Ballyliffin in 2016
Mullarney (22), currently at Maynooth University where is completing a Masters in "Business Strategy and Innovation", will join Rafferty in missing the "West" as they must compete in the clashing R&A Scholars' Tournament.
But he sees the GUI's decision to make the national team selection process transparent by publishing its criteria and guaranteeing two spots on the Home International team to the leading two players from the Bridgestone Order of Merit as huge positives.
"I always prefer to play the home events, unless it is something like the British Amateur, which you really can't miss. Other than that, I try to pick a home event first. So this has been a huge improvement.
"It's brilliant that it's now set in stone that the two leading players get picked."
As for the importance of WAGR as the entry barometer for the game's leading amateur events, he sees it as a good thing for all.
"WAGR is a big thing these days — not only to get into events like the British Amateur — but with more emphasis now on the home events, it will give lads who can only play the home events and want a WAGR ranking a better chance of getting one because the field will be better (with more top-ranked internationals playing). It's a win-win for everybody."
This year's East of Ireland Championship at Baltray, which has seen its field decimated in recent years by clashing events in the UK, will have a stellar entry from the international players as they do not plan to travel to the Brabazon Trophy in England that weekend.
Rafferty is certainly looking forward to his trip to Baltray from June 2-4 and he's a big fan of the new selection criteria having initially struggled to break into the international set-up.
"It is really good," Rafferty said. "It's definitely the right step forward. Irish events need to be noticed more than they are and I will be doing my very best to play as many as I can.
"I know there are a few events that clash if you make certain teams so the European Amateur Team is in Berlin the week of the North. But as long as I am here and I am available, I will play them. The West clashes with the R&A scholars tournament and it's part of our college contract. It's a shame because I love Rosses Pint.
"The East is already pencilled in. The Irish Amateur could clash with exams but if I had an exam in the morning, I'd get up there for a late tee time."
Bridgestone Boys International Order of Merit events
- March 24 — Ireland Boys v Wales, Cardigan Golf Club, Wales
- TBC - Ireland Boys v France
- April 11-12 — Peter McEvoy Trophy, Copt Heath, England
- May 3-6 — Fairhaven Trophy, Fairhaven Golf Club, England
- June 22-24 — Sir Henry Cooper Junior Masters, Nizels Golf& CC, England
- July 10-14 — European Boys Amateur Team Championship, Czech Republic
- August 8-10 — Boys Home Internationals, St. Annes Old Links GC, England
- August 14-19 — The Boys Amateur Championship, Royal Portrush & Portstewart
- 2019 (Aug 30-31) — Jacques Leglise Trophy, Aldeburgh GC, England