Into The West – Sligo is the place to be this Easter for 99th West of Ireland Championship

Ronan MacNamara

TJ Ford (Co Sligo) Picture: Niall O'Shea

Ronan MacNamara

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There is no greater sign that normality is returning than the Connolly’s Audi West of Ireland Championship settling back into its traditional Easter slot for the first time since 2019.

The 99th edition of this great championship kicks off the 2022 Bridgestone Men’s Tour with a new format being played over the Easter weekend.

132 players will tee it up for 54 holes of strokeplay from Good Friday to Easter Sunday before the top-16 after three rounds advance to the matchplay section of the championship which will be a straight knockout.

The final will take place on Tuesday after a marathon five days.

Royal Dublin’s Hugh Foley is back at Rosses Point aiming to become the first player to defend the West since Rory McIlroy backed up his 2005 win with victory in 2006.

Foley secured an emotional win last year after the death of his father but despite winning this in a 72-hole strokeplay format, the Clontarf native arrives buoyed by some strong matchplay performances in recent months.

The Dubliner played a huge role in Ireland’s sensational comeback in the Home Internationals as John ‘Blondie’ Carroll’s side took home the Raymond Trophy for the first time since 2017 before he progressed to the quarter-final of the Spanish Amateur in February only to be beaten by eventual winner John Gough.

The two-time major champion (2020 Irish Close, 2021 West) is looking forward to playing as defending champion.

“I’m taking the event as a new one this year with a different format,” Foley told Golf Ireland. “It’s much better to be in the spotlight as the defending champion, than shooting 80s like I used to do and not being known by anyone. I’d far sooner be in this situation.

“Sometimes with the weather at Rosses Point, it’ll be difficult to get three days of equal conditions, but hopefully we’ll get a strong 16 players for the Matchplay. I’ve never played this format before, so it’ll be a new experience.”

There are some tasty three-balls for the opening 36 holes, none more so than Foley, Irish Amateur Open and Close champion Peter O’Keeffe and home favourite and South of Ireland champion TJ Ford.

The trio are out in the penultimate group at 14.42.

While this may be the first major of the season there are plenty of hopefuls coming in with some good form. Irish internationals Robert Moran, Liam Nolan, Marc Boucher and Alan Fahy have plenty of competitive action under their belts after playing two events in South Africa at the start of the year as does teammate Matthew McClean who won the Ian Bamford Scratch Cup in Portrush last week.

Mullingar Scratch Cup winner Jake Whelan stepped up his links preparation with victory in Rosslare’s Scratch Cup.

2019 champion Caolan Rafferty of Dundalk is also in the field and he tees off alongside Fermoy’s Dean O’Riordan and Lisburn’s Aaron Marshall at 12.19.

Last year’s runner-up Paul Coughlan of Castleknock is in the final group with Castle’s Robert Moran and Nenagh golfer Scott O’Brien who is back from the US.

Galway’s Liam Nolan put on a final day charge last year with a 66 to join Coughlan in second spot and he can’t be ruled out nor can McClean who was third last time out.

Perhaps the trophy will remain in Royal Dublin for another year, Richard Knightly will have his eyes set on taking the title off his clubmate after finishing fourth last year.

The R&A Student Tour Series concluded last week and there are several scholars in the field who boast formidable links form.

Maynooth University’s Jordan Boles played in the finale in St Andrews before winning Wednesday’s West of Ireland qualifier.

R&A Student Series Order of Merit winner David Kitt has proven to have a solid links record and he will be brimming with confidence.

Harry Fanagan will hope to bring the trophy back into the family after his father Jody won the 1997 West of Ireland championship while Rian Carvill, the nephew of former South and East of Ireland winner Jim is also in the field.

Scotland’s Andrew Benson is the British representative while Kane Heathcliffe from the Bahamas will hope the long journey across the Atlantic is worthwhile as he looks to become the first international winner since Finland’s Mikko Ilonen in 1999.

Despite announcing his retirement during the autumn, 2007 champion Joe Lyons is here to outshine the young guns and add his name to the trophy for the second time.

Friday will represent the best opportunity for good scoring with a mild day and winds gusting to 10 kph before the wind is set to change direction and gust up to 26 kph.

Sunday will be a struggle with rain and a persistent wind forecast while temperatures are set to cool down for the matchplay rounds.

Play gets underway at 7am with local player Gerard Finegan, Bundoran’s Michael McCaughey and Brandon St John of Portmarnock opening proceedings.

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