Walker Cup hopefuls Caolan Rafferty and James Sugrue fired sub-par rounds when they really needed them to join Eanna Griffin and Ronan Mullarney in the matchplay stages of the Amateur Championship at Portmarnock today.
Dundalk star Rafferty (26) bounced back impressively from an opening 74 at The Island by firing five birdies in a four-under 68 at Portmarnock to finish tied sixth in strokeplay qualifying on one-under par.
The cut mark fell at four over par, with 76 players qualifying and a preliminary round at Portmarnock.
But while the top-ranked player in the field, Australian David Micheluzzi, safely qualified on two over, there was disappointment for Portmarnock's Conor Purcell who bowed out on eight over as just four of the 23 Irish entrants made it through to mano a mano combat
"I'm 26 so I'm going out there to enjoy it at this stage," said Rafferty, who has proved to be a brilliant late bloomer, winning the South of Ireland last year and this year’s West of Ireland before finishing third in the recent St Andrew Links Trophy.
"To shoot 68 around that golf course is always a nice feeling. There was a bit of work to do after yesterday but I just went out in a positive frame of mind today.”
Rafferty struggled to get attention in senior golf before making the breakthrough at provincial level and pushing on impressively.
“I wasn’t doing this five years ago,” he said. “It’s all a learning curve, to get to these events. I love competing at this level now. I’m after getting my foot in the door. I might as well try and stay there.
“I’m playing the biggest amateur competition we can play in on this side of the water. Why not just enjoy it? If you do well, you do well. It’s not going to make or break your next day.”
He was pleased to make five birdies yesterday with the pick of them coming at the 13th, where he was out of position in the left rough from the tee but got up and down from 80 yards for his four.
“Yesterday I had three bad lip outs. I wasn’t really myself yesterday. It’s the first time I got angry on a golf course in a long time,” he said of his first round 74.
“I went home — I was staying Conor Purcell’s last night —and talking to a few of the lads back home, they calmed me down a bit. Do what you do. Go out and enjoy it. Golf becomes a lot easier then. If you enjoy it, you can play well then.”
Purcell needed to break par on his home course to make the cut after an opening 76 at The Island but he shot a 75 to miss out by four strokes.
Waterford talent Griffin was pleased to follow a 73 at Portmarnock with a one-under 70 at The Island to qualify in joint 11th on level par on his debut in the event.
"I'm delighted to be up that high," the former Munster interprovincial said. "I know I can do it. When I play well, I can compete with anyone.
“I’m still not entirely happy with my game. My plan was to make as many pars as possible. I hit my irons really well.”
Yeovil's Thomas Plumb shot a 71 at Portmarnock to top the 76 qualifiers on four-under par, edging out Denmark’s John Axelson, who shot a 69 there, for the medal after a count back of their aggregate back nine scores at both courses.
Mallow international Sugrue made the top 64 and ties in 46th place on three-over after a fine 69 at The Island where Galway's Ronan Mullarney shot a one-over 72 to make it on the four-over par limit.
Axelsen (21) part of the Danish side that won the World Amateur Team Championship at Carton House last year, followed his 70 at The Island with an impressive 69 at Portmarnock in the last group of the day.
Plumb’s fellow Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup squad member Sandy Scott finished alone in third place. The 20-year-old from Nairn in Scotland, who has just completed his penultimate year at Texas Tech University, rekindled his love for links golf after rounds of 71 and 69 for 140.
Another Englishman, West Cornwall’s Harry Hall, and Norwegian William Buhl came a stroke further back on two-under par 141.
Rafferty’s 68 was matched by Scottish Amateur champion Euan McIntosh as the 50-year-old comfortably reached the knock out stage on one-over par.
It is only the second time The Amateur Championship has been hosted at Portmarnock following the previous staging in 1949, while The Island has co-hosted for the first time in its history.
With the match play stage taking place at Portmarnock from tomorrow through to Saturday’s 36-hole final, there is much at stake as the winner gains exemptions into The Open at Royal Portrush next month, the 2020 US Open at Winged Foot and, by tradition, an invitation to play in the Masters Tournament.
Mullarney plays American Mason Andersen, who shot a 68 at Portmarnock yesterday, in the preliminary round.
In the round of 32, Sugrue plays Hall, Griffin plays Scot Euan Walker and Rafferty is poised to take on Finland’s Jonatan Jolkkonen.
“It’s nice to be the leading Irish player and we’ll see what happens in the match play now,” Rafferty said. “You can go out and shoot six under and lose or shoot ten over and win on the 12th!”
Thomas Plumb, England (-4)
“I’m more than happy. Obviously, it’s two separate events with the stroke play and match play but to qualify as high as possible is still huge. I only made three bogeys so I couldn’t really do much wrong from there.
“Iron play with the wind was the key. Controlling the ball flight is huge around a links course. It especially makes it easier if you are coming in from the fairway a lot.
“People always say match play is completely different but at the end of the day if you are playing good golf then you just try to beat whoever is in front of you.”
John Axelsen, Denmark (-4)
“I went out there with the mindset of just making pars really. I haven’t made the cut for this championship in a while and just having a couple of shots up to the cut was pretty neat for me. I dropped some putts and got up and down a lot. I couldn’t believe I was three under at one point because I hit some bad shots out there. I didn’t really feel well. I was very fortunate with some good lies and getting up and down from some pretty bad spots.
“I feel like I have to go home and completely change the mindset and just start the championship from tomorrow really. This was just the first stage and its match play tomorrow so anything can happen. I’m really looking forward to that. It’s a long time since I played match play and I really like that format.”
Sandy Scott, Scotland (-3)
“It’s good to finish so high in qualifying. Coming back from college in America, I had a couple of rounds at Nairn and Castle Stuart and that has proved ideal links preparation. This week has made me realise how different the game is compared to America, with the wind affecting the ball so much.
“I had a shaky start at The Island today, scrambling for pars but I gave myself chances on the back and looked to stay in my routine.”
The Amateur Championship, Portmarnock (Par 72), The Island (Par 71)
1, T Plumb (Yeovil) 68 71 139;
2, J Axelsen (Den) 70 69 139;
3, S Scott (Nairn) 71 69 140;
4, W Buhl (Nor) 71 70 141;
5, H Hall (West Cornwall) 67 74 141;
6, C Rafferty (Dundalk) 74 68 142;
7, K Aoshima (USA) 71 71 142;
8, D Langley (Castle Royle) 70 72 142;
9, A Albers (Ger) 68 74 142;
10, J Bolton (Ogbourne Downs) 72 70 142;
11, E Griffin (Waterford) 73 70 143;
46, J Sugrue (Mallow 77 69 146;
69, R Mullarney (Galway) 75 72 147.
Other Irish (Non-qualifiers):
94, R Moran (Castle) 73 76 149;
96, G Lenehan (Portmarnock) 76 73 149;
116, T McKibbin (Holywood) 75 75 150;
122, R Lester (Hermitage) 76 74 150;
125, P Coughlan (Castleknock) 75 75 150;
128, J Fox (Portmarnock) 73 77 150;
135, R Brazill (Naas) 78 72 150;
150, E Leonard (Wentworth) 78 73 151;
151, D Morley (Oughterard) 74 77 151;
153, T McLarnon (Massereene) 79 72 151;
157, C Purcell (Portmarnock) 76 75 151;
221, A Fahy (Dun Laoghaire) 78 77 155;
227, P O’Keeffe (Douglas) 79 76 155;
232, J Murphy (Kinsale) 78 77 155;
235 TJ Ford (Co. Sligo) 79 77 156;
248, R Cannon (Balbriggan) 77 79 156;
267, E Smith (The Links Portmarnock) 83 76 159;
277, C Campbell (Warrenpoint) 86 75 161;
280, R Black (Hilton Templepatrick) 81 82 163.