2023 promises to be an intriguing year for Irish amateur golf. A Walker Cup berth at the Home of Golf is the big prize in September, with as many as a dozen players believing they can force themselves into the reckoning.
One player who is itching to put himself on the radar if he hasn’t already is Laytown & Bettystown star Alex Maguire who was a glaring omission from the initial 19-man Great Britain and Ireland panel named by captain Stuart Wilson.
The East of Ireland champion, who’s a star player for Florida Atlantic University, won’t take no for an answer and has grand designs of donning the colours of GB&I at St Andrews in September.
“I’d love to play Walker Cup and I’m going to do everything I can to make that team,” said Maguire who has four wins in the last two years. “We have a good strong schedule here in college for the spring, so I hope to play well in those events and get on the radar.
“I’m not a big outcome person, the work I do with Donal Scott it’s very process driven. If I want to make Walker Cup I have to think of what I need to do and have a deep dive into my game and see what I can do.
“The main goal would be to play Walker Cup.”
The 21-year-old has high standards. Mere mortals would consider a win in the United States, at the East of Ireland Championship, a run to the semi-finals of the Amateur Championship and a course record at Headfort New in the Irish Close an excellent year.
However, Maguire reflects on his year with a sense of what might have been. He believes he only briefly caught fire in June and feels some of his performances didn’t yield the results he deserved, breezing through the South and Irish Close Stroke play qualifying only to be eliminated in the first stage of the matchplay.
“I would say 2022 was not bad. I had a good run for about a month in June but a lot of performances I didn’t quite compete as much as I would have liked at home. I played poorly for two rounds at the North of Ireland. The results of the South and the Close don’t reflect how I played.
“I was only beaten by three players in qualifying in both of those events and then get knocked out in the first two matchplay rounds in both of them. I played quite well in strokeplay but since we play a lot of matchplay at home, the results don’t reflect the way I played.
“It was a good year definitely, highlighted by the two weeks in June that was a very special time for me.”
The Mornington man was trending in the right direction before he returned home from Florida after notching his first collegiate win at the Bayou Classic.
“It’s something that everyone who comes over to college from Ireland wants to try and do. I didn’t quite manage it in my first two and a half years but I managed to pick up a win on a course that actually didn’t really suit me. There wasn’t many drivers hit, driving would be a part of my game I would rely on,” explained Maguire who is now in the senior year of his international business major.
“It was a small quirky course with a lot of dog legs on it. The 2-iron I picked up the week before really helped. It was a course I wouldn’t have picked out as one I could win at but it was really nice to win that to get the monkey off the back. It wasn’t the biggest event but I think I would rather win a small one as a first because it will give me a nice experience of pressure going into the big events.”
There’s nothing like winning your home open, the pride of winning in front of your own people and celebrating likewise. For Maguire, the East of Ireland Championship was the one he wanted, the one he dreamt of, with his house in Mornington visible from the sixth tee box in Co. Louth Golf Club.
Maguire arrived home in June in prime condition to achieve his dream after getting back in the links swing with a solid performance at the Irish Amateur in The Island.
“I grew up aspiring to win it. Declan Branigan from Bettystown won it twice, Paul Dunne and Darren Clarke have won it, so it was a really special week for me because of how much I really wanted to win it,” he says.
“I grew up going to watch the event. I caddied a few times over there. It’s such a special event for me considering I live just across the river and you can see my house from the sixth tee. I had prepared a lot for it. I was fortunate that the captain of the previous year had offered me the chance to come over and practice more on the course.
“I trained a lot on the course leading up to the East. It was almost like my Masters! Every breathing second I could, I spent over in Baltray just because it was the one I wanted to win. I told everybody I knew that I would either win it or I was really hoping to win it.”
Win it he did, but in unlikely circumstances. Baltray had been starved of local pride for 27 years, but Maguire remarkably came from ten shots back heading into the 36-hole final day to claim his second major title, and in style. A sensational closing eagle completed the comeback and drew a spine-tingling roar from the ‘Maguire Ultras’ who had surrounded the 18th green.
“That sent shivers down my back,” he recalls. “I have a video on my phone that I watch when I am on a plane, or just bored, and it’s of me holing that putt and all I can hear is the roar. It always gives me goosebumps and I can’t thank everyone enough for the support I had that week. I would say I had the biggest crowd on the final day with family and friends from Baltray and Bettystown.
“I had a bit of time to wait for my eagle putt while the lads were finishing out on the green. I was sitting on my bag just looking around thinking ‘this is just incredible; this is why I want to play golf and why I want to hole this putt.’ I was very nervous over that six-footer. I knew if I holed it I might not win but I knew it would give me a great chance. The crowd reaction around me was extra special.”
Midway through the second round it looked as if Maguire was going to be set for a short drive home with no return coming for rounds three and four. A gallant back nine saw him make it to the final day on the number although he was in the first group at the crack of dawn! Winning was far from his mind before a morning 65 and an afternoon 68 saw him cut a swathe through the field and become the first Laytown & Bettystown member to win the East in 41 years.
“Ah no! When you are the first out on the first tee with 30 lads ahead of you, winning is not what you’re thinking. What helped me win it was making the cut, I was on the cut line and played the last ten in two-under and made the cut,” he says.
“I went to the Lime Kiln in Julianstown with my parents for dinner and I was sitting there thinking ‘what am I doing here?’ I’ve played Baltray 100 times and never been as poor. Got the text to say I was first out at 7am and I was more annoyed at the fact I was teeing off rather than not having a chance to win.
“It was one of those days woke up on Sunday morning and I picked up my friend to caddy for me. It was strange, one thing he said driving over the bridge into Baltray ‘could you imagine driving out of here in ten hours with the trophy?’ I laughed it off you know, ten shots back and the leaders will go lower. But I had nothing to lose.”
Golfers all over the world live in fear of the dreaded ‘S’ word but for Maguire, a case of the shanks is proving to be a good omen.
“I shanked my six iron on the second and made bogey and I’m thinking ‘this could be horrendous’, but I remembered I shanked it off the first at the North and went on to win so I settled and thought if I could make a few birdies and go on a run, I could get back into this. I set myself a number every six holes; I missed one or two of them but it didn’t matter.
“I knew I was quite close to the lead around the turn. I chipped in on seven and got a nice stroke of luck. I knew down 11 I had a chance, the hardest hole on the course and hit two of the best shots of the week so I knew I had the ball under control then.
“I wasn’t too annoyed because I chipped in on seven, so the golf gods gave me a punch back so it didn’t faze me, luckily, and I played the last hole well and made an eagle there.”
There wasn’t much time for celebration as Maguire was back on his travels with all roads leading to Royal Lytham and St Annes for his Amateur Championship debut.
The journey to Lytham was a nightmare for the Irishman but he made it worthwhile, and if anything was going to stake his claim for a place in the Walker Cup squad, it should have been his run to the semi-finals where he eventually lost 3&1 to South African Aldrich Potgieter, narrowly missing out on a place in the 150th Open Championship.
“That was a very strange week for me,” Maguire admits. “It was my first time playing and I remember having a call with LMFM and I had a horrendous time with my car, it took me 15 hours to get there and it shouldn’t take near that long.
“I just wanted to go out and play well I played very solid in the first round at Lytham. On the last hole I was one-over and then I got a flier on the last hole from 160 with a 9-iron, it went 40 yards over the green, hit the back of the clubhouse and bounced backwards towards the green. So if that wasn’t there I would have been OB and made double or triple. That was a stroke of luck,” explained Maguire who shot three-under to make the cut after 36 holes.
His run did not end there and he completed an impressive scalp over highly-rated Frenchman Martin Couvra in the first knockout round before coming up against a familiar face in Mark Power who had reached the semi-finals in 2020.
“I played some of my best golf against Martin Couvra, played out of my skin to beat him on 18 and then played Mark in the next round.
“My dad always thinks that when two Irish play each other early on it’s rigged! Mark is the best golfer in Ireland that I’ve seen, he’s beaten me twice so I wanted to get one over on him. We were four or five-under par each – it was a great match.
“I know how much he wanted to win it after getting to the semis before and it’s hard to beat a guy you know.”
There’s a reason amateur events are so difficult to win. They are marathons, not a sprint, especially when they combine stroke play and match play. Unfortunately for Maguire, fatigue caught up with him in the semi-final and costly errors crept into his game.
“I noticed fatigue in the semis but the adrenaline carries you through,” he says. “It carried me through the last-16. I remember getting off the course and going to this Italian restaurant with my parents and I was utterly wrecked. I had no energy to drive or move my hands. It’s definitely more tiring going to 18, the earliest I won a match was 17 so I was drained.
“Played OK in the quarter-final and got through but I was running on fumes in the semi, a few bad habits crept in and ultimately cost me. I was annoyed to let it slip away but the week was unforgettable to be honest.”
Maguire arrived home to a hero’s welcome in his home club in Laytown & Bettystown after a tremendous fortnight of golf where he sunk a few pints and became the star on screen in the clubhouse.
“I got back to Bettystown and having a few pints in the clubhouse the next day and the YouTube replay was, it was a bit surreal. Although I didn’t win, it made me quite proud of what I achieved that week.”