It’s the letter everyone wants to receive in the post. It’s the lane everyone wants to drive down. It’s the golf course everyone wants to play, and it’s the tournament everyone wants to be a part of.
It is, of course, The Masters at Augusta National.
Augusta can hardly be dubbed a happy hunting ground for golfers from this island considering no Irishman has ever slipped into the classic three-button, single-breasted, single-vent Green Jacket, the most coveted item of clothing in sport.
Sixteen Irishmen have represented this island at Augusta National with at least one Irishman competing in the Masters since 1998 in the never-ending quest for the green jacket.
Driving down Magnolia Lane on Easter week will be Ireland’s seventh amateur when Malone’s Matthew McClean extends Ireland’s place among the pine to 17 representatives.
McClean will be making his Major championship debut after winning the US Mid-Amateur Championship, beating Royal Dublin’s Hugh Foley in the final.
Erin Hills was the site of his breakthrough victory but that occasion pales in comparison to life amidst the azaleas and towering dogwoods of this slice of paradise in the otherwise mundane state of Georgia.
Here’s Ireland’s magnificent seven amateurs who have made that famous drive down Magnolia Lane:
Optometrist Matt McClean was keen to play down any trip to Augusta this April until he received the official invite from the powers that be over Christmas, and now he is set to tee it up alongside Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry and Séamus Power.
“It’s more relaxing. It’s part of the tradition and reputation of the Masters so I didn’t want to say anything to sort of rock the boat,” McClean says. “Since the invite came, I’ve had more contact with Augusta, so I feel a lot more secure now.
“I have the invite in the house. I have it in a frame and everything to protect it.”
The Masters isn’t just about the four rounds of golf and with that in mind, McClean is eager to immerse himself in the experience, which starts with a certain leisurely cruise.
“The drive up Magnolia Lane on Masters week will be insane and the buzz of the place, the energy of the place throughout the week will be great to experience,” he says.
“The drive will be special. The par-3 tournament is a pretty cool tradition on the Wednesday. We are able to stay in the Crow’s Nest for a couple of nights as well and a few of the functions throughout the week will be cool.
A photograph to cherish. My grand nephew Matthew McClean (4th from right) lining up with the other 6 amateurs playing the Masters this week. pic.twitter.com/VBaTKT2buR
— Gerry Kelly (@GerryKellyShow) April 4, 2023
“I think there’s an amateur dinner on one of the nights with a couple of invited guests. There’s a whole lot going on outside of the tournament and it will be great to be part of it.
“It’s the unique aspect of the Masters that there are so many things that are traditional and experiences to look forward to. In a way, the golf almost feels like a background thing until you get there for the week, just because there are so many non-tournament things that are really exciting.”
Last year saw Séamus Power line out with Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry and Pádraig Harrington in the practice rounds ahead of his tournament debut and McClean harbours hopes of an all-Irish fourball.
9 holes this morning with the honorary Irishman @TommyFleetwood1 ☘️ pic.twitter.com/Ozdzduv1lD
— Shane Lowry (@ShaneLowryGolf) April 5, 2023
“That would be ideal,” he says, with Lowry already tweeting his approval to make it happen. “If it all aligns and works out that we can get a fourball with the Irish guys, that would be great.
“There are loads of iconic spots on the course so if we got that fourball it would be a nice photo to have for years to come. The practice round will be great no matter what but that would make it more special.”
McClean’s first memory of the Masters is Tiger’s iconic chip in on the 16th hole of the 2005 edition as he pipped Chris DiMarco to the Green Jacket in a pulsating final round battle.
The Malone man has his eyes set on having a brief conversation with the 15-time major winner, or perhaps getting a quick selfie. However, he hasn’t been fully sold on a potential Thursday morning tee time.
“Obviously, the chance to meet Tiger would be great and grab a photo or have a chat would be class. I haven’t thought about it, just play it by ear and see what the atmosphere is on the week and see how guys react. It would be unbelievable.
“Even all the retired guys like Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player would be unbelievable to meet as well.
“I don’t know what would be best, to play with Tiger would be a fairy-tale but I think the added pressure and attention that comes with it, probably isn’t worth it. That sounds mad but I probably wouldn’t want to play with one of those guys in the actual tournament.”
McClean will have his father caddying for him in the pre-tournament par-3 contest before handing the bag to one of his friends from Malone where they will walk some of the most famous fairways and stand on some of the most iconic tee boxes in golf.
“The main one and most iconic one is the 12th hole,” McClean says.
“That strikes fear into a lot of people when you play it. The 12th, 16th and the one I am most looking forward to is the walk up the 18th fairway and hopefully I can put together a decent score and make it more enjoyable. It will be an experience I will never forget.”
Name: Matthew McClean
Home Club: Malone Golf Club
Masters Appearance: 2023 – upcoming
Masters Exemption: 2022 US Mid-Amateur Champion – Erin Hills
Other Major Championship Apps: 2023 US Open Championship – upcoming
Mallow’s James Sugrue played in the November Masters in 2020. The Irishman got to drive up Magnolia Lane, albeit in the dark, and even got to meet a certain 15-time Major champion.
“I was on the putting green and it was just me and Tiger, so I decided to chance my arm at a picture. I just had to and being at Augusta made it very cool,” Sugrue recalls.
“The practice area by the driving range is just unbelievable. But there’s a smaller putting green by the 10th and 1st tee boxes and I was going to tee off. Just before I went, I asked Tiger’s caddie, Joe LaCava was it OK if I took a photo with him and he said yeah.
“He called him over like, ‘Hey T’ and Tiger just goes ‘oh you won The Amateur, I saw that on TV.’ That was a mad one! He was just talking about Adare Manor and JP McManus, he was praising JP for how good he is for golf and how cool Adare is.
“He was with Robbie McNamara, and he is from Limerick. Yeah, it was a very normal conversation. When he mentioned Adare Manor, I will never forget his words: ‘JP McManus, he’s the f**king man!’
“That just shows you how good JP is when the best sportsperson in the world loves him.”
The fact the four days were played behind closed doors dampened the experience slightly for Sugrue, but he is using that as fuel to make a second appearance in the event in the future in front of his family and friends.
He got to play with Andrew Putnam and two-time Masters champion José María Olazábal for the opening two rounds where the fairway chat was about all things Spanish football.
“The Masters was just surreal,” he says. “I suppose the one annoying thing is that there was nobody there. None of my family or friends could go because of Covid so that was the disappointing thing. But to be there and stay in the Crow’s Nest and to drive up Magnolia Lane, the whole aura is unbelievable.
“Every golf fan grows up watching the Masters from a young age and just to play the course would have been special enough but to play in the Masters was what dreams are made of.
“Ollie was a legend, a really nice guy. I heard he was a Real Sociedad fan so we talked about Sociedad which was fun.
“That’s the goal to get back there in front of friends and family one day.”
Name: James Sugrue
Home Club: Mallow Golf Club
Masters Appearance: 2020 – Missed Cut
Masters Exemption: 2019 Amateur Champion – Portmarnock
Other Major Championship Apps: 2019 Open Championship (MC), 2020 US Open Championship (MC)
Of the Irish amateurs who have walked Amen Corner, Brian McElhinney arguably had the best company when he made his appearance in 2006 alongside two-time winner Tom Watson and then reigning US Open champion Michael Campbell.
“It was a really good draw and they were both really nice to play with,” McElhinney remembers. “You felt at ease playing with them, not intimidated or anything like that. They were both really nice people and loved to talk about playing golf in Ireland so that was a great draw.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking to say the least. I hit a really good tee shot off the first and hit a really good second, but it trickled off the back of the green. That’s the thing about Augusta, you can get punished by a shot that isn’t that bad. I was in a position then where I was doing well to make bogey because the chip was so tricky.”
The Irish have made a habit of looking after each other during Masters week and McElhinney was taken under the wings of Pádraig Harrington and Paul McGinley while also bumping into some of golf’s biggest stars.
“I played a practice round with McGinley and Harrington which was great,” he says. “I went onto the putting green on one of the practice days and Gary Player came over to congratulate me for getting to play in the Masters which I thought was quite nice.
“I met Butch Harmon and Adam Scott coming out of the pro shop and they congratulated me for being in the Masters. Played a practice round with a few other big names like Luke Donald, Jim Furyk, Rocco Mediate, Geoff Ogilvy and Colin Montgomerie.”
Playing some of the iconic holes made the Donegal native appreciate how difficult they are. He even hit the green on the famous par-3 12th.
“There were certain things that happened that made you think,” he recalls. “From watching on TV, it doesn’t do it justice. When we played 11, the guys were hitting off the 12th tee. The last two guys to hit ended up in the water short.
“Campbell went up first and his ball hit the bank and it came back into the water and I don’t know how many times Tom Watson had played in the Masters before that but no matter how much experience you have playing a course, it can still catch you out. From his experience I thought he would do better but his ball hit the bank and came back into the water, so he was caught out!
“That made me realise what Augusta was all about with the swirling winds and shelter on that tee and the angle of the green.
“That really made me feel I was at Augusta. I actually hit the green, back corner so I was happy enough, a wee punchy 5-iron. The day before I hit a 9-iron then the wind and pin changed! Players were hitting 7-irons and coming up short.
“When I played 13 and 15. Some of the top pros make them look so easy. 13 is such a tight line to take it over the trees on the left, anything left is gone. 15, the second shot, to hit that green while hitting a long iron or woods takes a top class shot, it’s such a small area to land on.
“When you play them, it makes you appreciate it more.”
Name: Brian McElhinney
Home Club: North West GC
Masters Appearance: 2006 – Missed Cut
Masters Exemption: 2005 Amateur Champion – Royal Birkdale
Other Major Championship Apps: 2004 Open Championship (MC), 2005 Open Championship (MC)
Only the second amateur from this island to have made multiple Masters appearances. Bangor’s Garth McGimpsey even got to play a practice round with Jack Nicklaus in the 1986 edition before the Golden Bear went on to win a sixth Green Jacket.
“I could hardly have wished for a better memento of playing Augusta,” he says. “In a frame hanging on the wall of my home in Bangor are three precious items – a cheque from Jack Nicklaus, a simple, personal letter from him and a picture of the two of us preparing to drive off the third tee.
“All three were the result of a fourball I played with him in practice on the Tuesday of Masters week in 1986. That, of course, was the year he thrilled the golfing world, especially me, by winning the title for a sixth time.
“I was so thrilled to have played a round with Jack Nicklaus that the idea of being paid never occurred to me. In fact, I was preoccupied and more than delighted with the fact that I happened to shoot 73, which was an excellent score for me on such a demanding course. I can’t remember what Jack shot, other than the fact that he played some really nice golf.”
Name: Garth McGimpsey
Home Club: Bangor Golf Club
Masters Appearances: 1986 (MC), 1987 (MC)
Masters Exemption: 1986 Amateur Champion – Royal Dornoch
Other Major Championship Apps: 1985 Open Championship (MC), 1986 Open Championship (MC)
Alan Dunbar’s 2012 Amateur Championship win in Royal Troon – beating Matthias Schwab in the final – granted him an invite to the 2013 Masters, where he missed the cut.
Dunbar was drawn to play with 2006 Masters winner Trevor Immelman and his South African compatriot George Coetzee.
Upon turning pro in 2013, Dunbar forfeited his exemption to the US Open that year.
“I’ll remember the whole week for a long time to come as it was a great week,” said Dunbar.
“I’ve a lot of good memories from the trip. It was great to have my mate Fionn over and caddying in the Par 3 tournament, it was great watching him play the ninth, I know he really enjoyed it.
“It was a fantastic way to end my amateur career by playing at Augusta.”
Name: Alan Dunbar
Home Club: Rathmore Golf Club
Masters Appearance: 2013 – Missed Cut
Masters Exemption: 2012 Amateur Champion – Royal Troon
Other Major Championship Apps: 2012 Open Championship (MC)
JOE (JB) CARR
One of the great Irish amateur golfers. The Sutton Golf Club legend won as many as 40 major trophies including a hat trick of Amateur Open wins, becoming just the third man to do so.
Carr’s performances on the world stage earned him three invitations to tee it up in the Masters (1967, 68 and 69) – breaking new ground for Irish golfers while partnering 18-time major championship winner Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead.
In Sutton Golf Club resides an Augusta blazer by way of special dispensation from Augusta National who normally refrain from letting such a garment leave the club. Such was Carr’s unique relationship with Augusta and the Masters, he was the first Irishman to hold membership of the famous club in 1967.
The Carr legacy continues up Magnolia Lane with his son John now a member.
Name: Joseph Benedict Carr
Age: Died June 2004 aged 82
Home Club: Sutton Golf Club
Masters Appearances: 1967 (55th), 1968 (52nd), 1969 (MC)
Masters Exemption: Invites, Three-time Amateur Championship winner 1953, 1958, 1960
Other Major Championship Apps: 13 Open Championships – Low Amateur 1956, 1958, Best Finish 8th in 1960, 1967 US Open (MC)
Hoey made his Masters debut alongside Paul McGinley in 2002, the then 23-year-old playing well before missing out on the weekend by an agonising single shot.
Hoey turned pro after his date with Augusta and won five DP World Tour titles before retiring to become a referee.
The Bangor man is the only one of the seven Irish amateurs to have gone on and won on the DP World Tour and broken into the top-100 in the world during his career.
Name: Michael Hoey
Home Club: Shandon Park Golf Club
Masters Appearance: 2002 – Missed Cut
Masters Exemption: 2001 Amateur Champion – Prestwick
Other Major Championship Apps: 2001 Open Championship (MC), 2012 Open Championship (MC), 2012 PGA Championship (DQ)
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