It’s the height of exam season in Ireland with the junior and leaving certificate exams taking centre stage across the country. Just over the pond a host of Irish will face a stern test of their credentials. It’s not quite final, but this week’s Amateur Championship carries a lot of weight.
Irish Walker Cup hopefuls both on the provisional panel and looking to play their way in from the outside can virtually guarantee their place on the Great Britain and Ireland side with a win or at least put their hands up for selection with a deep run at Hillside and Southport & Ainsdale.
There is of course an added incentive with the biggest amateur prize in the UK and Ireland now the second leg of a three tournament series to see who can qualify for July’s Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. The highest points scorer on the World Amateur Golf Ranking from the St Andrews Links Trophy (played), Amateur Championship and European Amateur Championship will book a spot in the Hoylake field courtesy of a new exemption from the R&A.
“It’s a great incentive and adds a little bit of extra significance to each event,” Mark Power told the R&A of the Royal Liverpool chance. “It’s a great opportunity for guys playing in all three events. All of us would love to play in The Open so there is a focus on these events and trying to put three good weeks together. Fair play to The R&A and The Open for co-ordinating it as it’s a great opportunity.”
The Irish have been blessed with good fortune in this illustrious championship with James Sugrue (2019), Alan Dunbar (2012), Brian McElhinney (2005), Michael Hey (2001) Garth McGimpsey (1985) Joe Carr (three times), Max McCready (1949) and Jimmy Bruen (1946) all tasting victory.
Peter O’Keeffe and Alex Maguire enjoyed deep runs in last year’s championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes reaching the quarter-final and semi-final respectively.
O’Keeffe (Douglas) arrives as one of six Irishmen on the early Walker Cup panel for St Andrews in September and he is joined this week by Robert Moran (Castle), Brabazon Trophy winner Liam Nolan (Galway), Hugh Foley (Royal Dublin) and Power (Kilkenny) – Matthew McClean is absent after competing in the US Open.
Power impressed in the 2021 Walker Cup alongside John Murphy in Seminole as GB&I fell to a narrow 14-12 defeat to the USA and he hopes to retain his place in Stuart Wilson’s squad when it is finalised in August.
“It was definitely the highlight of my golfing career so far,” said the 22-year-old, who recently graduated from Wake Forest University with a degree in Communications. “It was unbelievable. People didn’t give us much of an opportunity that week, but we gave it a really good effort. Ever since then I really wanted to play in another one and when I heard it was on in St Andrews it gave me extra incentive to try and make this team. I feel like we have a good squad, some young, fearless players and when it comes to match play that is what you want – to be aggressive.”
Our Walker Cup contenders are joined by the red hot Maguire who is indeed the bookies favourite ahead of Irish Amateur Open champion John Gough.
The Laytown & Bettystown man is looking to make it three wins in a row after retaining his East of Ireland title on the June Bank Holiday weekend before sauntering to a five-shot win at the St Andrews Links Trophy the next week – at the site of September’s Walker Cup, the Old Course.
Of the Irish challengers looking to play their way in from the outside he looks the most likely to break in although Royal Dublin’s Max Kennedy isn’t too far behind after a sensational 2023 that includes two wins of his own.
Kennedy arrives after representing the International side in the Arnold Palmer Cup, as does Rosapenna’s Ryan Griffin who made the cut at the Amateur 12 months ago on debut.
Ireland have the second largest contingent in the field this week including Roganstown starlet Sean Keeling who looks set for a Junior Ryder Cup berth but still can’t be ruled out for a Walker Cup place after a Scottish Boys win and a handful of impressive showings in the Men’s Championships.
Dundalk’s Caolan Rafferty probably thought his days at the top table of amateur golf were gone after tasting a Walker Cup experience in 2019 but his remarkable consistency despite a limited schedule has given him an outside chance.
The remaining Irish include: Marc Boucher (Carton House), Robert Brazill (Naas), Paul Conroy (Enniscorthy), Fionn Dobbin (Malone), Jack Hearn (Tramore), Thomas Higgins (Roscommon), Joshua Hill (Galgorm), Patrick Keeling (Roganstown), Richard Knightly (Royal Dublin), Jack Murphy (Douglas), Luke O’Neill (Connemara), Jake Whelan (Grange).
The WAGR split (based on the 14th June 2023 release) for the 288 competitors is as follows – 9 players from the top 50, 21 from the top 100, 54 from the top 250, 103 from the top 500, 145 from the top 750, 194 from the top 1,000, 235 from the top 1,250, 256 in the top 1,500 and 279 in the top 4,000. 9 players do not have a WAGR ranking.