20-year-old James Claridge from Enville, just outside Wolverhampton played sublime golf in the toughest of conditions to take down Sligo’s own Barry Anderson in the Centenary Connolly’s Audi West of Ireland final at County Sligo Golf Club.
Having already secured the inaugural Pat Ruddy Perpetual Trophy as low individual strokeplay winner, Claridge put on an exhibition of ball-striking and short-game play to defeat the local man 6&5 in the showpiece match and put himself firmly on the radar of the Walker Cup selection committee.
First off on the opening tee, Claridge never relinquished the honours, racing to a 2-UP lead through three holes as Anderson got off to a sluggish start. A sublime up-and-down from the dead zone short of the par-3 fourth kept the 2017 West of Ireland champion in touch, and they’d halve the par-5 fifth in birdie.
Claridge was in perfect control of his game, hitting position A-one off the sixth and seventh tees, and the shot into the latter, which plays at index-one for the members, was the perfect illustration of that – a soft 5-iron held against the wind, that settled pin-high – and saw the younger man take a five-hole lead.
He’d get up-and down for par on eight, nine and 11, the last of these good for another win as Anderson would pull his tricky downhill five-footer for a half – a severe body blow for the local favourite as he’d looked odds on to pull one back before Claridge poured in a 15-footer.
Another birdie at the 12th gave him a 6-UP lead, and when Anderson’s birdie putt on 13 slipped past, he graciously conceded Claridge’s two-footer and offered his hand in congratulation.
“It’s great. It’s pretty cool isn’t it,” Claridge said afterwards when asked about what it meant to join the likes of Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry and Padraig Harrington as West of Ireland winners. “You don’t really think about it when you’re playing, you’re just out here trying to get the job done but it means a lot, to be in company with people like that.”
“I’ve been playing pretty solid all week,” he replied, when asked at what stage he knew that he was at the top of his game and on course for victory, “and probably the pinpoint part was the up and down on two. I got up and down on one, but the up and down on two where it nearly went in, two putted nicely on four, birdied five. The shot into six was a good one and the shot into seven straight after was a nice one as well, so yeah, probably around six or seven.”
Not in the provisional Walker Cup panel, Claridge spoke earlier in the week of a recent conversation with Irish selector Padraig Hogan in which Hogan informed him that wins could put him in the picture.
“Yeah I think it’s a good reply,” he said when asked what this win does for his Walker Cup chances. “To win two solid events in pretty good fields. You have got Hugh Foley, Peter O’Keeffe, Arron [Edwards-Hill] who are in the practice squad. My goal this week was as long as I did better than them and keep pushing my name forward. I’m really looking forward to the top four, you know Lytham, Brabazon, St Andrews, British Am and see what I can do there. But it just seems to be going my way at the minute.”
“He was a machine today,” an obviously disappointed Anderson said. “11 pars and two birdies in torrential rain in a final, he just didn’t give me a look in at all. I didn’t have my best stuff today which is the thing I’m probably most disappointed about.
“Going out there I just wanted to try and play my best and if it was a win, brilliant, and if not then whatever. But I don’t know even if I had played my best I don’t know if it would have been enough to beat James there today. He seems to have been the standout player of the whole field for the whole week.”
By his own admittance, had it not been the centenary West of Ireland Championship, Anderson may not have even played. Work commitments and an upcoming wedding mean he’s spending considerably less time on the course than he used to, but the competitive spirit meant that he wasn’t quite ready to view reaching the final was bonus territory.
“It’s a little bit hard to process at the moment,” he admitted. “If you had told me I was going to get to the final at the start of the week I would have probably ripped your arm off for it. Once you’re that close it’s just heartbreaking. You’re so close but it’s just not good enough at the end.”
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