Caolan Rafferty finished as the leading qualifier after three rounds of strokeplay at the Connolly Audi West of Ireland Championship at a wet and windy Co. Sligo Golf Club.
The Dundalk native finished on three-under for 54 holes after a third-round 72 and was the only player to break par, finishing four strokes clear of the field.
The 2019 champion’s place in the last-16 was never in doubt after a superb first round of 65 was made more secure by some textbook West coast conditions. The rain battered the golf course and the wind howled, with many falling foul to the elements this year.
The 99th edition of the championship is undertaking a new format this year with the top-16 players at the end of strokeplay qualifying advancing to the matchplay stages and the former Walker Cup player is looking forward to the knockout phase where he will face Roscommon’s Allan Hill who squeezed into the top-16 after a closing birdie gave him a superb round of level-par 71 to qualify on seven-over.
“It’s a new round of golf,” Rafferty told Golf Ireland. “You might as well call it a new tournament, because the stroke play is gone. I’ve a match against Allan Hill tomorrow now. It’s about beating him. Everyone from 1 to 16 has a chance of winning this now.”
There are some tasty ties in Monday’s last-16 with four Irish Home Internationals pitted against eachother. Carton House’s Marc Boucher will bid to end Hugh Foley’s gallant defence of the trophy while 2021 runner-up Liam Nolan will tackle the all-conquering Peter O’Keeffe in a mouth-watering clash.
Royal Dublin’s Foley advanced at his ease after a three-over 74 saw him qualify in 8th position and he is hoping the matchplay phase will give him the licence to play free-flowing golf.
“It feels like I’ll be able to free up again tomorrow now,” he told Golf Ireland. “You’re trying so hard to stay in the top-16. Shots will be easier now going into the Matchplay tomorrow. I can be more aggressive now.”
It was a day for coming from behind as seven players put on late spurts to book their spots in the last-16. Alan Fahy, Eddie McCormack, Eoin Sullivan, James Hewitt, Scotland’s Andrew Benson, Hill and O’Keeffe all rose through the field to advance.
Bray’s Fahy was one of just four players to break par on Sunday with a brilliant three-under 68 to qualify in third place on +1 alongside Thomas Higgins.
McCormack of Galway Bay was two shots further back after a two-under 69 while Irish Close and Amateur champion O’Keeffe qualified in 13th place thanks to a one-under 70 which included three birdies in his first six holes.
Malone’s Matthew McClean shot a level-par 71 to qualify in 5th place.
It has been a good week for the students with three R&A Student Tour Series players advancing. Maynooth University’s Ryan Griffin joined Hill in Monday’s matches after a five-over 76 left him on that number while Trinity College’s Eoin Sullivan is also safely through on six-over.
There were of course some casualties. Local favourite and reigning South of Ireland champion TJ Ford missed out while last year’s joint runner-up Paul Coughlan is also heading home. Leading qualifier Jordan Boles was unable to progress despite a great round of 73 in the conditions while Jake Whelan, Robert Moran, Jack McDonnell and Richard Knightly have also bowed out after 54 holes.
The last-16 matches tee off at 8am on Monday morning with Rafferty facing Hill in the top match.