Ronan Mullarney had little to prove to his peers but he admitted it was a relief to finally capture his maiden championship with a steely one-hole win in the AIG Irish Amateur Close at Ballybunion.
The venerable Old Course was a shimmering emerald in the August sunshine and the 23-year old international from Galway Golf Club produced a work of art worthy of a master jeweller, closing out a hard-fought win over Naas’s Robert Brazill to become the first player to lead the qualifiers and win the title since Cormac Sharvin in 2013.
“Any time you are on a list with Cormac, it is a good thing,” beamed the flame-haired Galway man, who had won the R&A Scholars, the Mullingar Scratch Trophy and the Irish Students Championship in Tralee but never one of the six amateur “majors”.
After surviving a late rally from 18-year-old Elm Park talent Charlie Denvir to win his semi-final by one hole, he played to his strengths in the final and left Brazill with little margin for error on perfect day for links golf.
“I am absolutely delighted,” said Mullarney, who was thrilled to join the greats on the Irish Close trophy after Brazill’s 12 foot birdie putt to force extra holes lipped out on the 18th.
“I wasn't going to tell you, but it did absolutely grate on me that I haven't won one of these before. I am delighted.”
While he topped the qualifiers by six strokes on nine-under par after rounds of 65 and 68, Mullarney was determined to walk away with more than the silver medal and he achieved his goal in impressive fashion.
He was brilliant for Ireland on his international debut last year and after moving to the top of the Bridgestone Order of Merit yesterday, he should be an even bigger asset in next month’s Home Internationals at Lahinch.
He will try his luck at the European Tour Qualifying School in September before deciding whether or not to remain amateur or take the plunge into the paid ranks.
He has the course management skills of a Peter Lawrie or Damien McGrane — “Rory McIlroy, I think myself.,” he joked. “ I play my own game. I don't model it off anyone else” — and the short game to match, which might prove to be a useful asset at Q-School.
He is also unafraid to do things his way, admitting that while he was intimidated by Ballybunion’s towering dunes at first sight, he formulated a game plan that worked for his game.
“I love it,” he said of the Old Course. “I have to become a member down here. I don't know what the people in Galway would say, but I love it. The first time I played it, I thought, how am I going to play this place? So spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I figured out a way that worked.
“It was quite intimidating on second shots, and when I got over that, it wasn't as severe as it looked. There are places to miss, and I got used to chipping. It is beautiful to chip off that turf. So that helped me a lot - little six-iron bump and runs up slopes and things like that.”
Against Denvir, he looked to be cruising to a fast-track win when he went three up through five holes. But the young Dubliner took the match up the last where Mullarney ground out a regulation four to win.
A closing four was enough to take the title against Brazill, who left Ballybunion guaranteed to finish the season inside the top three in the Bridgestone Order of Merit, which means he will join Mullarney in Lahinch.
The 2018 West of Ireland winner had turned a two-hole deficit at the turn into a two hole win in his semi-final clash with Dun Laoghaire’s Alan Fahy.
But he was frustrated by his lack of luck on the greens and Mullarney’s metronomic play in the final, which offered little hope of a big mistake.
“Ronan just doesn’t hit it off line,” Brazill said. “He knows where it’s going every single time. I know I am capable of a two-way miss, even with an iron. I don’t think he knows what a miss is and he’s a really good putter. He’s such a hard man to play against.”
After winning the fourth with a conceded birdie, Mullarney lost the fifth to Brazill’s birdie four but then made a 15 footer to win the sixth in birdie with his opponent less than 10 feet away.
“I thought I stuck in well because I didn’t have a great start. I knew from 6, 7 onwards I played well there in the last matches. I tried to stick with him but just missed a few putts.
“I suppose the 6th was a bit of a sickener, hitting it in close there and then he rolls it in.”
It was a blow to Brazill, who won the eighth with a two to square the match but then took six and conceded the ninth to go one down again and never got back on terms, growing more frustrated as the holes ebbed away.
He saved a great par at the 11th but having failed to take advantage of Mullarney’s bogey at the 12th, flaring his tee shot before failing to make an eight footer for par, he did well to halve the 13th in birdie, but lost the 15th to a par-three to go two down.
“Twelve, that was a bad tee shot,” said Brazill, whose body language grew more agitated with each hole that passed. “I should have been in the middle of the green, made my three and walked on. I let it flare up a bit into the wind.”
Mullarney shaved the hole with an eagle putt down for victory at the 16th, where Brazill again went close with the putter.
“That was so close ,” he said. “I gave it a go. I should have had that same mindset on 17. But that putt got me this morning as well.”
He looked certain to close out the title at the 17th when he found the green in two and Brazill, playing from heavy rough through the fairway, snagged in the long grass and found a nest of fescue just left of the green.
He was short-sided too but played a magnificent pitch to around five or six feet and watched Mullarney size up a 35 footer down the hill to a pin cut on the edge of a downslope.
Two putts would be enough, possibly three
But he opened the door a crack when he left a 35 footer seven feet short at the 17th and three-putted to allow Brazill to win the hole with a brave par.
“It is really tricky. I was 6-7ft short, but if I give that another foot of pace, I am two feet away. It is on such an incline there so while the shot in looked good to most people but I knew I had a really tricky putt. Rob made a great up and down. And I fully expected him to.”
While the Naas man asked the question by bombing his downwind drive to within 50 yards of the pin at the 18th, Mullarney hit an iron for safety, fired his approach to 18 feet and burned the edge for birdie.
Brazill had one bullet left in the chamber but his last gasp birdie putt to force the match up the 19th caught the left side of the hole and spun out.
Having said on Sunday that he’d be disappointed to leave Ballybunion with only the silver medal, Mullarney drove home with all the silverware and the title his game and his trajectory deserves.
“In the grand scheme of things, you are not here to be the leading qualifier you are here to win,” he said. “I was delighted to be the leading qualifier but you are here for the trophy.”
AIG Irish Amateur Close Championship, Ballybunion (Old)
R Mullarney (Galway) bt C Denvir (Elm Park) 1 hole; R Brazill (Naas) bt A Fahy (Dun Laoghaire) 2 holes.
Mullarney bt Brazill 1 hole.