Early West a major test as County Sligo opens 125th anniversary celebrations
The 17th at Rosses Point

The 17th at Rosses Point

Rosses Point is not for the faint-hearted when the wind is whipping in off the north Atlantic and only the extreme surfers are smiling as the clouds scud across bare Ben Bulben's head.

There might be three weeks to go to Easter but it's West of Ireland week at County Sligo and while it will have a different flavour this year with the elite, 132-man field set to play 72 holes of strokeplay in the Radisson Blu sponsored championship for the first time, it's still the West and the die-hards are licking their lips.

The reason for the early date and the change of format from the traditional "mano a mano" thrill of matchplay combat is that this is County  Sligo's 125th anniversary year.

With the club set to host the 72-hole Flogas Irish Amateur Open Strokeplay from May 16-19, the West has been brought forward to leave the required six-week gap between the two great championships

And the format change — designed to help the working amateurs who will not have the benefit of a Bank Holiday this year and also to attract some potential contenders for May's event— while not for the faint-hearted given the vagaries of the weather, will produce a very worthy winner with the handicap cut off a forbidding plus 0.3 this year.

The quality of the field suggests it's been worth the risk and many are rubbing their hands together at the prospect of taking on what will be a hugely demanding ball-striking test, hoping to get an edge on the international opposition that will descend on the Point in May for the blue riband Irish championship.

While a bad hole in matchplay means the loss of just one hole, a disaster in strokeplay could prove fatal and that's why strong ball-strikers with links pedigree, a championship winning resumé and a long iron game to match are licking their lips.

The field will play three rounds before the top 50 and ties go on to play the final round on Sunday and few will look beyond the top internationals in the field, headed by Portmarnock's Conor Purcell and Dundalk's Caolan Rafferty, both of whom play off plus five.

There's also Galway's plus-four man Ronan Mullarney who finished tied for second with Rafferty in this week's R&A Scholars Tournament at  St Andrews, and the reigning Mullingar Scratch Trophy holder Tiarnan McLarnon.

Defending champion Robert Brazill, the massive-hitting Naas man, is determined to defend his title and go on to earn his first full Irish cap in the Home Internationals at Lahinch in September.

But there are others who tick all the boxes when it comes to the tools needed to survive what will be a huge physical and mental test.

Douglas' Peter O'Keeffe might one of the veterans in the field at 37 but he's a bad-weather specialist with a great long-iron game and having eased to victory in the Irish Amateur Open at Royal County Down two years ago, he arrived at Rosses Point yesterday with high hopes.

He also arrived with a plan and as he prepares to tee it up with Brazill and James Sugrue in the penultimate group today, he's aiming to play to his strengths on a course where he sees patience as a big asset this week.

"I played last year, qualified well and then lost in the second round so I am happy it is strokeplay this year," said the Corkman, who warmed up impressively by edging out Sugrue for the Muskerry Senior Scratch Cup last weekend. 

"I am hoping for wind, and I think strokeplay is good for me because I have been working hard over the winter with my coach Noel Fox and I've done a lot of work on my putting.

"I'd be surprised if I didn't contend because it is all about patience and I love the wind. Strokeplay is a slightly different thing to matchplay, especially around Rosses Point. So I am going to stay aggressive and see how it goes.

"I was fourth in qualifying last year and I like the course, so I am really looking forward to this week and getting the preparation for the Irish Amateur there in May. 

"It's a ball striker's course and I am a good ball striker so if I am hitting it pretty straight off the tee, it's about hitting good iron shots and that's something I enjoy.

"I've been working on an aggressive strategy off the tee and getting a good flight on my irons and there are areas of the course where I will be paying particular attention — that stretch from the sixth to the eighth and then the final few, especially the 16th and 17th, which are always key."

Peter O’Keeffe. Picture:  Pat Cashman Photography

Peter O’Keeffe. Picture: Pat Cashman Photography

O'Keeffe arrived at Rosses Point with Lee Valley's Mel Deasy, who will be playing in his first senior championship having topped the leaderboard in last Sunday's 18-hole qualifier, where 12 spots were on offer.

The 16-year old carded a three-under 68 to win the qualifier by three strokes from Cork's Kieran Murphy and he has no fear.

"All he sees are green lights, not red lights," said O'Keeffe, a strength and conditioning coach who has been working to help Deasy in the off-season. 

"He has a lot of speed and physically quite athletic and plays out-half for PBC Cork. He's like a lot of the young lads, he just gets up and rips it."

The course continues to evolve with the new tee and the newly re-routed burn at 14th strengthening that hole before the finishing stretch.

The 17th green has been extended to the right, though the new pin position that has created will not be in play until later this year, when the new portion of green has kitted in perfectly."

With Purcell (29th), Rafferty (43rd) and O'Keeffe (59th) all ranked in the top 60 in the world, there's excitement at the club ahead of a banner year and five local men in the draw in Declan Reidy, Shane Underwood, Ruairi O'Connor, TJ Ford and Sean Flanagan, no shortage of home interest.

While Barry Anderson, the last Sligo man to win the title, is on a break in Australia and last year's beaten finalist Alex Gleeson, who has strong Sligo connections, is also travelling, the presence of Mullarney, Purcell and Rafferty is a boost the event and a fitting curtain-raiser to Co Sligo's 125th anniversary year.

West of Ireland Amateur Open (sponsored by Radisson Blu Hotel & Spa, Sligo), Co Sligo GC

Thursday (Friday)

07:15 (11:17) Thomas Higgins (Roscommon), Kieran Murphy (Cork Golf Club), Mel Deasy (Lee Valley); 
07:26 (11:28) John Cleary (Elm Park), Jamie Stothers (Tandragee), Declan Reidy (Co. Sligo); 
07:37 (11:39) Thomas Plunkett (Crover House), Eric Rumley (Kinsale), Eoin O'Brien (Clontarf); 
07:48 (11:50) Jack Tuohy (Galway Bay), Michael Joseph Kennelly (Galway Bay), Sam Murphy (Portumna); 
07:59 (12:01) Shane Irwin (Killeen), Liam Hutchinson (Royal Dublin), Ryan Griffin (Ballybofey & Stranorlar); 
08:10 (12:12) Darren Leufer (Athenry), Shane Underwood (Co. Sligo), Sean Doyle (Black Bush); 
08:21 (12:23) John McCarthy (Grange), Adam Smith (Mullingar), Noel Crawford (Mourne); 
08:32 (12:34) Keith Fitzpatrick (Kinsale), Greg O'Mahony (Fota Island), James Maginn (Mourne); 
08:43 (12:45) James Monaghan (Royal Dublin), Robbie Pierse (Grange), Marcus Looby (Greystones); 
08:54 (12:56) Joshua McCabe (Roganstown), Robert Abernethy (Dun Laoghaire), Fergal Kennedy (the Island)
09:05 (13:07) Gareth Moore (Lurgan), Evan Farrell (Ardee), Conor Ryan (Dun Laoghaire); 
09:16 (13:18) Harry Gillivan (Westport), Allan Hill (Athenry), Liam Power (Galway); 
09:27 (13:29) Michael Sinclair (Knock), Ciaran Vaughan (Limerick), Jamal Sabir (Moate); 
09:38 (13:40) James McVicker (Knock Golf Club), Padraig O'Connor (Macroom), Stefan Greenberg (Tandragee); 
09:49 (13:51) Cian Dullaghan (Greenore), Alex Maguire (Laytown & Bettystown), Mark O'Rourke (Royal Tara); 
10:00 (14:02) Richard Knightly (Royal Dublin), Odhran Maguire (Slieve Russell), Keith Murphy (Dun Laoghaire); 
10:11 (14:13) Alexandre Decorde (Bordeaux Lac), Seamus Cullen (Slieve Russell), Shane Hogan (Nenagh); 
10:22 (14:24) Gary Ward (Kinsale), Rhys Clarke (The Island), Jason Gibson (Fintona); 
10:33 (14:35) Gavin Fitzmaurice (Balcarrick), Alan Lowry (Esker Hills), Ryan McNelis (Fintona); 
10:44 (14:46) Sean Ryan (Royal Dublin), Annraoi Collins (Laytown & Bettystown), Cathal Butler (Kinsale); 
10:55 (14:57) Eoin Murphy (Dundalk), Jake Whelan (Newlands), Jack Walsh (Castle); 
11:06 (15:08) Marc Nolan (Dun Laoghaire), Joseph Byrne (Baltinglass), Darragh Flynn (Carton House); 
11:17 (07:15) Richard McCrudden (Royal Portrush), Aaron Marshall (Lisburn), James Fox (Portmarnock); 
11:28 (07:26) Charlie Denvir (Elm Park), Stephen Barker (Mourne), Ben Murray (Waterford Castle); 
11:39 (07:37) Stephen Walsh (Portmarnock), Ross McCormack (Palmerstown House), Jason Rackard (Enniscorthy); 
11:50 (07:48) Andrew McCormack (Castletroy), William Russell (Clandeboye), Rory Williamson (Holywood); 
12:01 (07:59) Ross Latimer (Knock), Peter McKeever (Castle), Paul O'Hanlon (Carton House); 
12:12 (08:10) Aaron Grant (Dundalk), Niall Hearns (Mountrath), Ben Best (Rathmore); 
12:23 (08:21) Ruairi O'Connor (Co. Sligo), Barry Cashman (Belvoir Park), Shaun Carter (Royal Dublin); 
12:34 (08:32) Niall Carroll (Athlone), David Kitt (Athenry), Luke O'Neill (Connemara); 
12:45 (08:43) Paraic Connolly (Killeen Castle), Joe Lyons (Galway), Gary McDermott (Carton House); 
12:56 (08:54) Reece Black (Hilton Templepatrick), Alan Fahy (Dun Laoghaire), Darragh Smith (Newlands); 
13:07 (09:05) Geoff Lenehan (Portmarnock), Ross Dutton (Tandragee), Kyle McCarron (North West); 
13:18 (09:16) Gavin McKenna (Donaghadee), Sean Desmond (Monkstown), David Reddan Jnr (Nenagh); 
13:29 (09:27) Eddie McCormack (Galway), Jack McDonnell (Forrest Little), Phillip Johnson (North Hills CC, USA); 
13:40 (09:38) John Hadnett (Castletroy), Colin Woodroofe (Dun Laoghaire), Max Kennedy (Royal Dublin); 
13:51 (09:49) Eanna Griffin (Waterford), Matthew McClean (Malone Golf Club), Hugh Foley (Royal Dublin); 
14:02 (10:00) TJ Ford (Co. Sligo), Jack Pierse (Portmarnock), Sean Flanagan (Co. Sligo); 
14:13 (10:11) Eugene Smith (Laytown & Bettystown), Paul Buckley (Memorial, USA), Gary Cullen (The Links Portmarnock); 
14:24 (10:22) Fraser Carr (Kirkistown Castle), Keith Egan (Carton House), Arron Edwards-Hill (Chelmsford); 
14:35 (10:33) Colm Campbell (Warrenpoint), Robert Moran (Castle), Robert Cannon (Balbriggan); 
14:46 (10:44) Paul Coughlan (Castleknock), Gary Collins (Rosslare), Tiarnan McLarnon (Massereene); 
14:57 (10:55) Robert Brazill (Naas), James Sugrue (Mallow), Peter O'Keeffe (Douglas); 
15:08 (11:06) Ronan Mullarney (Galway), Conor Purcell (Portmarnock), Caolan Rafferty (Dundalk).

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