Louth and proud but is the “East” losing its allure?

Crowds watching the action during the final round of the City North Hotel sponsored East of Ireland Championship at County Louth Golf Club on 06 June 2016. Picture by Pat Cashman

Crowds watching the action during the final round of the City North Hotel sponsored East of Ireland Championship at County Louth Golf Club on 06 June 2016. Picture by Pat Cashman

The list of former champions reads like a who’s who of Irish golf but there is now genuine concern that the storied East of Ireland Amateur Championship is in danger of losing its allure unless it finds a new date.

The 72-hole strokeplay championship has been played at County Louth over the Whit weekend since 1941 when the great Joe Carr captured the first of his 12 titles.

But with Irish amateur golf enjoying unprecedented success with 11 of our 42 Walker Cup caps in the last 91 years coming since 2007, our top players feel obliged to play in clashing overseas events such as this weekend’s Scottish Amateur Open or next week’s St Andrews Links Trophy in order to top up their World Amateur Golf Ranking and impress the Great Britain and Ireland selectors.

“You have to go,” one Irish international told me. “Apart from the Walker Cup selectors, you need the world ranking points because if it’s tight when it comes to picking an Irish team for something like the European Amateur Team Championships, the top six Irish players in the World Amateur Golf Rankings have a better chance.”

While the members of the Irish senior squad play more home championship than many imagine, the East of Ireland is now a victim of the international calendar to such an extent that just five of 17 current international squad members will tee it up in the 77th edition at County Louth on Friday

“It’s a glorified scratch cup!” roared one former winner from the halcyon days, angry that the chase for world ranking points now means more than an Irish championship.

“What is amateur golf for?” he went on. “It is just there to prepare guys to turn pro? Is that where we are?”

Last year, the 18-strong Irish panel played an average of four of the six Irish events with 14 playing the season-opening West of Ireland, 17 teeing it up in the Irish Amateur Open, 11 playing both the “North” and the “Close” and 12 heading to Lahinch for the “South”.

Just six played at Baltray, where former professional Paul O’Hanlon triumphed as 10 members of the Irish squad played in the clashing St Andrews Links Trophy in Scotland.

Naas’ Conor O’Rourke triumphed at the Home of Golf that week, picking up 82.9617 world ranking points in the A-strength event as O’Hanlon got less than half that number at the F-strength East.

Considering the list of past winners includes Walker Cup players Tom Craddock, Arthur Pierse, Pat Mulcare, Garth McGimpsey and Noel Fox as well as future tour stars such as Darren Clarke or Paul Dunne, it’s hugely frustrating for both the Leinster Branch and County Louth Golf Club that it has been relegated to the golfing backwater in recent year.

Gerard Dunne (Co Louth) reacts to his birdie putt on the 15th green during the final round of the 2016 City North Hotel sponsored East of Ireland Championship at County Louth. Picture by Picture by Pat Cashman

Gerard Dunne (Co Louth) reacts to his birdie putt on the 15th green during the final round of the 2016 City North Hotel sponsored East of Ireland Championship at County Louth. Picture by Picture by Pat Cashman

The two main stakeholders in the event tried to improve the field this year but spreading it out over four days rather than the traditional three, hoping that a 54-hole cut with just one round on Monday rather than two would attract more overseas players.

Invitations were issued to several international federations but there were few replies and no takers and The Island’s Kevin Le Blanc, ranked 369th in the world, is the leading player in tomorrow’s draw with the up-and-coming 16-year-old Kilkenny man Mark Power the other big attraction.

Panel member West WAGR D Open WAGR B East WAGR F (SALT WAGRA) North WAGR F Close WAGR E South WAGR E Total %
Colm Campbell Yes Yes – Winner No (SALT 20/144 Yes Yes Yes 5 83
Gary Collins Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes 6 100
Robin Dawson Yes Yes No (SALT 31/144 No Yes Yes 4 66
Colin Fairweather No Yes No (SALT 51/144) Yes Yes Yes 4 66
Sean Flanagan Yes Yes Yes Yes – Winner No Yes 5 83
John Ross Galbraith Yes Yes No (SALT 73/144) No Yes Yes 4 66
Alex Gleeson Yes Yes No (SALT 53/144) No Yes – Winner Yes 4 66
Stuart Grehan Yes Yes No (SALT 32/144) No No No 2 33
Eanna Griffin Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes 5 83
Jack Hume No Yes No (SALT 29/144) No No No 1 16
Geoff Lenehan Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes 6 100
Rowan Lester No (USA) Yes Yes Yes No Yes 4 66
Paul McBride No (USA) No (USA) No (USA) No No Yes 1 16
Dermot McElroy Yes Yes No (SALT 7/144) Yes PRO PRO 3 50
Tiarnan McLarnon Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes 6 100
Conor O’Rourke Yes Yes No (SALT Winner) Yes Yes No 4 66
Conor Purcell Yes Yes No Yes No Yes – Winner 4 66
Jonathan Yates Yes – Winner Yes No (SALT 37/144) Yes Yes No 4 66
Total 14 17 6 11 11 13 Average 12 66.66%

Instead of attracting more overseas players, the move to a Friday start has only angered the rank and file working amateurs, who have been forced to seek at least one day off work.

“We were hoping that the German or Icelandic panels might play, but that hasn’t worked out,” Joe McNamara, Hon. Secretary of Leinster Golf, conceded.

“The change is not set in stone but it’s clear that the date, which is decided in consultation with County Louth, is an issue.

“It’s not that our top players don’t want to play in Baltray but the Walker Cup selectors want them to play the two events in Scotland and there are a few more WAGR points and more pretenders to the Walker Cup team.

“It’s not just sitting down in Ireland to look at the calendar but looking at the UK and European calendar too.”

Both Leinster Golf and Baltray fear that if they give up the June Bank Holiday date they may never get it back, should a move to another weekend prove a failure.

“It is a shame,” McNamara said. “It was basically the Irish Strokeplay championship for a long time until the Irish Amateur Open was revived. Everyone wanted to play the four rounds. 

“But then the players started looking at the Scottish Amateur and the St Andrews Links Trophy and trying to impress the Walker Cup selectors. As we are producing more international players, they are becoming more selective about what they play in. 

“To a degree, we are a victim of Irish golf’s success.”

McNamara expressed disappointment that more of our internationals, many of whom have received coaching from Leinster golf since their early teens, do not support the East.

Paul O'Hanlon (Carton House) holes his par putt on the 17th green during the final round of the City North Hotel sponsored East of Ireland Championship at County Louth Golf Club on 6 June 2016. Picture by Pat Cashman

Paul O’Hanlon (Carton House) holes his par putt on the 17th green during the final round of the City North Hotel sponsored East of Ireland Championship at County Louth Golf Club on 6 June 2016. Picture by Pat Cashman

“From a personal point of view, that’s disappointing,” he said. “But they want WAGR points now and to impress Walker Cup selectors, and that’s something that didn’t happen 15 or 20 years ago.

“The culture of the career amateur is gone. They are all trying to become, at worst, coaching professionals or PGA professionals.

“We don’t want to move unless we have a 90 percent chance of success but it is very difficult to find a suitable alternative date. We also have the Barton Shield and Senior Cup to take into account. Where do you move these things?”

Liam Murphy, General Manager of County Louth Golf Club, confessed that the club is keen to find a solution sooner rather than later.

“The club is concerned that it is losing allure and that is making it more difficult for us to get a sponsor,” he said. “We will sit down with the Leinster Branch and review it and try and come up with some means of attracting a higher quality field. 

“Are we just going to suck it up and keep going as we are going or look for a different date? 

“The feeling in the club was that we needed to do something. We tried to get some overseas players this year, and that’s been a bit of a failure. We’ve had very little response to that having sent out the invitations in January-February.

“It’s a tough one. If you move and it doesn’t work, somebody else might move in and snatch that date. Then you have to look at where you move to. 

“With the international schedules mapped out years in advance, we’d have to look very carefully at finding an appropriate date, if one exists at all.”

Making events compulsory for international selection is unrealistic, but it’s clear that something has to give if the East is to remain relevant as a top class event.

This piece first appeared in the Irish Independent’s Tee to Green Golf Supplement on June 1

from News – Irish Golf Desk http://ift.tt/2rqkRQx

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