The East of Ireland Amateur Open Championship, to give a venerable GUI ‘Major” its full title, drops off the calendar for only the second time in 80 years.
Yes, you read it right. Eighty years. Take 80 from 2020, and you get 1940.
A brief pause, just for a moment…..and then, it all kicks off.
Enter stage left at rapid pace a small but knowledgeable and very indignant cohort of golfing cognoscenti.
“What’s he on about?,” they shout.
“Sure, the East of Ireland only started in 1941. So he’s wrong. There was no East of Ireland Championship in 1940.”
True, my friends, very true. But believe it or not, the inaugural staging of what became Ireland’s first 72-hole stroke play Championship was very much part of the 1940 GUI schedule.
Question from the floor: “Through the chair, if it was on the schedule there had to be a reason why it was not played that year. Was it because of the War?”
“No, my friend, although it has to be admitted, the world was in a state of chaos then, what with Hitler’s hordes trampling all over Europe. But golf in Ireland pretty much carried on as planned that year.”
Another question: “Through the chair, would you s…t or get off the pot. Tell us the answer.”
Well, here goes. Basically, in August 1939, the County Louth GC committee decided to hold an East of Ireland Championship at Baltray consisting of 72 holes medal play, on April 26 and 27, 1940.
There was no objection to the idea at the Leinster Branch GUI meeting in November 1939, so in early 1940, despite the outbreak of War the previous September, County Louth proceeded with their plans.
However, trouble began to brew at central GUI level over the use of the word “Championship.”
Letters were exchanged between the Union and the club. County Louth fought their corner, but it all came to a head in early April of 1940, just a few weeks before the new tournament was to tee off.
Wham! The GUI banned the promotion of Championships by clubs other than the normal internal club championships – but this did not apply to the established South of Ireland run by Lahinch and the West of Ireland, traditionally hosted by County Sligo.
Bam! County Louth hit back, protesting against the “harsh and inconsiderate attitude adopted by the Golfing Union of Ireland towards our East of Ireland Championship fixture.”
No Thank You Mam! The golf club decided that, “acting under duress and as a mark of protest against what we consider to be unfair treatment, we will cancel the fixture altogether, and hold only our normal Open Week events.”
And just to add to the GUI ire, the club decided that the relevant correspondence regarding this matter should be handed to the Press. So there! That showed ’em.
What next? Well, it took some time to mend fences and pour oil on troubled waters but at the Leinster Branch meeting in November 1940, permission was granted for an East of Ireland Championship to take place at Baltray in 1941.
JB “Joe” Carr, then aged 20, rocked up from Sutton GC in May of that year to fend off local challenger, 19 year old Kevin Garvey and win by four shots.
It was the first Championship victory by Carr, who was to win the East 12 times in total and be celebrated as an Irish golfing legend.
Thus, the East of Ireland made its debut on the GUI calendar and every year since ’41 up to 2019, the Championship has featured the cream of the amateur talent in this country.
Interesting to note that County Louth, the club of the Gannons, Reddans, McGuirks, and Garveys, and of many generations of fine golfers, has enjoyed a ‘home’ win only four times in 79 stagings of the Championship.
Kevin Garvey got his revenge on Joe Carr in 1942, but the next County Louth man to take the trophy was Mark Gannon in 1978.
Barry Reddan joined his clubmate on the honours list in 1984 and Finbarr Ronan kept the title at Baltray in 1985.
Darren Clarke is the only Irish Major champion who posted an East of Ireland victory on his amateur golfing CV en route to becoming a world renowned figure in the game.
Shane Lowry, the reigning Open Champion – that still feels good to say and to write – played the East for the last time in 2008, finishing six shots behind the winner, Eoin Arthurs of Forrest Little.
Less than a year later Lowry wrote his name into the history books by his stellar triumph in winning the Irish Open as an amateur at County Louth.
A star was born that day, but Lowry would admit that his familiarity with the Baltray links from his experience at the East of Ireland helped in his daunting battle with the hardened Tour professionals that epic week.
The most notable amateur-turned-pro who won the East in recent times is Paul Dunne, the champion of 2013.
Two years ago the East broke new ground when Christo Lambrecht of South Africa became the first overseas winner in the Championship’s history in 2018.
Lambrecht was also the youngest to lift the Peter Lyons Trophy at the tender age of 17 years and four months.
The attraction of Irish links and Championship golf for aspiring professionals from abroad was further enhanced last year by another South African, Martin Vorster, the current holder of the title.
Sadly, the 2020 campaign must be virtually written off at this stage due to the Covid-19 restrictions but we can only hope for better times ahead for the country, for sport in general, for golf, and for the GUI’s Major Championships.