The opening day belonged to Limerick at the AIG Cups and Shields Finals in Westport as they captured the Barton Shield for the first time since 1976.
Chasing success on two fronts – Limerick vie for the Senior Cup on Saturday – the Munster champions completed the first leg in style with a seven-hole victory over Co Sligo.
“It’s been a fantastic journey for us in the Barton Shield,” said Limerick team captain, Juan Fitzgerald. “We’ve been unlucky in a few Irish finals. Sligo beat us back in 2006 at Enniscrone so we kind of owed them one really.”
Limerick edged Warrenpoint by two holes in the semi-finals but altered their lineup for the afternoon. Cognisant of course demands and turbulent conditions, team captain Fitzgerald selected Sean Enright instead of Justin Kehoe.
“We made a decision to change the team in the afternoon, which is a hard thing to do,” Fitzgerald admitted. “Justin played really well this morning but we just felt the golf course is so long and the wind is so strong that we probably needed someone like Sean Enright to come in.”
Enright played alongside Owen O’Brien in game two but Limerick’s top pair led the way. Unbeaten in this campaign, Ciaran Vaughan and Michael Reddan came good again, steering Limerick to victory with a five-hole win against Co Sligo’s Ruairi O’Connor and Thomas Finnegan.
“It’s been a great partnership,” Reddan reflected. “We holed putts at important times.”
After winning the first with a par, Vaughan and Reddan never trailed. Although they wobbled at the eighth when their second shot hit water, the undefeated duo hit back immediately: Reddan holed from eight feet for a winning par at the ninth.
While Limerick controlled the top game, Co Sligo took a grip in game two. The Ford brothers, TJ and Daniel, combined smartly to lead by two holes after nine. But the 10th marked a turning point. O’Brien and Enright halved the deficit after their opponents went out of bounds off the tee.
The Limerick pair won again at 11 to square their game, meaning the Munster men now had a three-hole cushion overall. Co Sligo’s sinking hearts suffered another blow at 13: Ciaran Vaughan holed from 18 feet to wrestle an unlikely win.
Limerick’s leading pair were five clear after another win at 14. Meanwhile the game behind went all square at 13 as the Fords were forced to take a penalty drop following a wild tee shot into trees. By that stage, the holes were running out for Co Sligo. As Limerick maintained a five-hole lead through 15 and 16 in game one, their second pair went ahead at 14.
On the 15th green, Owen O’Brien closed out the match with a putt befitting any final. He holed from 25 feet for a birdie, pushing Limerick over the line.
Earlier Limerick overcame perennial contenders, Warrenpoint, in a close run semi-final. The top game went Limerick’s way when Ciaran Vaughan and Michael Reddan prevailed by one hole against Paul Reavey and Rian Carvill. With Justin Kehoe and Owen O’Brien leading after 17, there was no way back for Warrenpoint.
Co Sligo booked their place in the final with a comfortable win over Dundalk. Ruairi O’Connor and Thomas Finnegan led the Sligo charge, blitzing their opposition to win by seven holes.
Elsewhere on the opening day at Westport, the finalists for the Jimmy Bruen Shield and the Pierce Purcell Shield were confirmed. The Island defeated Nenagh 3.5-1.5 to set up a meeting with Tandragee, winners against Roscommon by the same margin, in the Bruen decider.
“The Hurley brothers, Conor and Cillian, won it for us and it is so apt because I am a hurling man,” said Humprehy Kelleher, team captain with The Island. “They were four up with four to play and lost the last four holes. So to win it with a birdie on 19 was just incredible.”
The Island are bidding to win a green pennant for the first time since 2005 in Saturday’s final against Tandragee.
“We last got to the All Ireland Finals in 2013 at Royal Tara, but we have never won an All Ireland,” said Brian Fyffe, team captain with Tandragee. “The front order came good, and two of our first three pairings won.”
Charleville and Castlebar will contest the final of the Purcell after beating Rossmore and Cill Dara, respectively.
“It was a very tight match and we got lucky in the end,” explained Charleville team captain Anthony Fitzgerald after watching his side beat Rossmore. “We were dormie and got that bit luckier in that decisive match with Ger Mullane and John O’Keeffe winning on 17.”
For Castlebar, Colin Dawson and Pat Waldron got them over the line.
“Cill Dara gave us a good battle and we just came good in the end,” said Gerry O’Malley, Castlebar club captain. “We won the Jimmy Bruen a few years ago with the same management team in 2017. We have never won the Pierce Purcell.”