Northern Ireland’s rising star Tom McKibbin has a double date on Monday, June 17. First on the agenda is his debut in the 124th Amateur Championship, to be played at Portmarnock (Old) and The Island from June 17-22. Once his first qualifying round is over, McKibbin (16) will make a dash to a nearby school to sit the last of his GCSE examinations.
The Irish Boys international has received permission from the Examination Board in the North to take his Biology exam at the Dublin school and he is grateful for the opportunity. A student in Belfast Royal Academy and a member of Holywood GC, McKibbin looks forward to playing in The Amateur for the first time.
This is a special event for Irish golf, as the last, and only time The Amateur was staged in the Republic was at Portmarnock in 1949. A starting field of 288 representing the cream of the world’s amateur talent will take on 36 holes qualifying at Portmarnock and The Island before 64 come through to start the match play series from Wednesday, June 19.
Last Friday, McKibbin played a practice round at Portmarnock in the company of two men who know every inch of the world renowned North Dublin links – PGA teaching professional Noel Fox and member Geoff Lenehan who will also compete in The Amateur.
McKibbin’s verdict? “It was just good to get a look at the course, basically, because I’ve got exams on at the minute, so I don’t really have much time to come and play it. The course is in great shape. The rough is getting pretty thick. It’s good.
“I’ve never played a competition here. I played it in September and I played it in the Darren Clarke week-end before, so I think that’s all I’ve played it. I’ve played it a few times but I’ve never played it properly from that far back,” he said.
Strong winds added to the test on the day but by the finish of their 18 holes, McKibbin had earned the admiration of Fox and Lenehan. Fox, who had a stellar amateur career, turned pro at the age of 31 and had some success on the EuroPro circuit, but since gaining his PGA qualifications he has become a highly respected golf coach.
This was Fox’s first time to see McKibbin’s game up close and personal and he was impressed.
“I had never played with him before. First thing I’d say, he’s the nicest kid in the world. Some of these young kids they can arrive with a little bit of attitude, but he’s a super kid, very respectful and very enthusiastic. What’s most refreshing for me playing with young players is to remind me of that enthusiasm, but he’s got a lot of game,” he said.
Elaborating on that theme, Fox noted some similarities between the Newtownabbey youngster and Rory McIlroy. Both being Holywood GC golfers, and McIlroy having taken a keen interest in the youngster’s progress, that is not surprising.
“I know he’s friendly with Rory, so I see some of his mannerisms. Tom plays a very similar type of game.
“He’s an exceptional driver of the golf ball, accurate and long. His iron play was beautiful today. If I go to amateur events with any of the kids I’m teaching, I’d be kind of critical that they don’t hit it pin high enough.
“This was just his second time around Portmarnock and he hit it pin high nearly every single time, so he’s already, at that age, playing like a professional.
“His short game and putting was lovely, really lovely. But being a brilliant driver and hitting it pin high will carry him a long way. Attitude-wise, Tom is exceptional,” said Fox.
The Amateur represents another step up for McKibbin who is developing his career in impressive fashion. The most recent victories on his golfing CV are two prestigious international events – the McEvoy Trophy at Copt Heath and the Junior Invitational hosted by Sage Valley Golf Club in Graniteville, South Carolina.
Sage Valley is just 12 miles from Augusta National and everything about the exclusive club is top class. The course, designed by Tom Fazio, is well up to Augusta standard and facilities are arguably beyond that level. The Sage Valley Junior Invitational is restricted to top level young players, and McKibbin’s win added significantly to his growing reputation on the international scene. He also received the Paul S Simon Character Award from Sage Valley for the charity work he has done with the Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice.
Meanwhile Portmarnock are putting out the welcome mat for the week of The Amateur. The club’s Championship committee headed by former Irish international Niall Goulding (Chairman), Eugene Kelly (Hoc Secretary), and Shane Browne (Hon Treasurer), have done sterling work to make this a spectator-friendly tournament.
Admission and car parking will be free all week and promotional activity has been done with local schools and nearby golf clubs. Niall Goulding said the club is quietly confident of attracting significant numbers to watch the stars of the future, including 18 home players.
Duncan Weir, Executive Director-Golf Development of the R&A said:
“My expectation, based on the Walker Cup going back to 1991, is that you’d have very good crowds here. Obviously the impact of local players would have an effect in drawing crowds, so yes, I would expect good crowds here.
“That doesn’t happen nowadays to the same extent in Scotland and England, it must be said, and there’s much more golf on television every day of the week, every week of the year, but over here, I think there’s a bit more culture of people turning up to watch amateur golf.”