Are amateur championship format changes taking away the magic?

Ronan MacNamara

Quentin Carew (Photo by Cameron Smith/R&A/R&A via Getty Images)

Ronan MacNamara

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What makes amateur golf so great is the matchplay element. So, why are we losing it?

If there’s anything people hate, it’s tampering with tradition and amateur golf seems to be hellbent on tweaking stalwart amateur championships.

Reading the news that the Scottish Boys’ Championship, first held in 1935 is going to become a 54-hole strokeplay event is just ridiculous. 54 holes is no format for a national championship. But to take away the match play format and not even have 72-holes of strokeplay is a nonsensical format change and a crying shame for one of Scotland’s great championships which was won by Ireland’s own Sean Keeling (Roganstown) while Olivia Costello (Roscommon) won the Girls’ event.

Ireland, of course, is no stranger to tampering, with the West of Ireland, North of Ireland and Irish Close Championship undergoing wholesale format changes in recent years.

Like the Scottish Boys, Ireland’s West of Ireland Championship, often in conjunction with the US Masters is seen as the curtain raiser for the new season.

But the recent format change in the West for Rosses Point saw the event played across 54-holes of strokeplay with a cut after 36 and just 16 players advancing to the matchplay stages.

This has seen the West lose a sense of charm and taken away the belief that anyone can win compared to when the top-64 would progress to the matchplay bracket.

54 holes of strokeplay only for 16 players to have a realistic chance of winning a national championship really doesn’t make much sense. Why would anyone ranked way outside the top-16 bother showing up for round three, during a time of year that usually brings brutal weather conditions?

It is perhaps why some of Ireland’s bigger stars swerved the date this year.

The North of Ireland championship had a date and format change and in fairness, improved its World Amateur Golf Ranking, but again, didn’t draw an elite field and James Fox’s win will contradict the point being made in this piece…

Are we sacrificing popularity, tradition and charm in order to try and get the cream of the crop to the top?

Many dream of qualifying for an amateur championship, but that dream often includes being the 64th and final qualifier and who knows, going on a fairytale run to the final before completing that David vs Goliath victory that you get once in a blue moon. Are golfing governing bodies reducing the likeliness of that scenario by favouring strokeplay formats?

How many can dream of doing what Quentin Carew did in 2022 at the Irish Amateur Close Championship if these tournaments are designed to bring the cream to the top. That being said, there are championships that should be kept to 72-holes, like the Irish Amateur Championship – the highest ranked amateur in the field this year at the Island, John Gough, was a fitting winner and a brilliant victor for the championship, putting it back on the map.

At the 2022 Irish Close in Headfort, Allenwood native and mid amateur, Carew, was the 64th and final qualifier and went on a sensational run through the matchplay stages, including beating future Walker Cup player Alex Maguire on his way to the final where he came from four down through nine to beat the all conquering Hugh Foley.

That elevated the Edenderry man and Castleknock member onto a different level in Irish amateur golf and he put up a magnificent defence of his title in Malone this year when the format changed to 72-holes of strokeplay. But what that leaderboard drew was a catalogue of the usual suspects. Where was the rank outsider?

Granted, Castle’s Robert Moran was a fitting and deserving winner. He is undoubtedly one of Ireland’s top amateur golfers and everyone should be delighted he won.

However, are fairytale wins like Carew’s in 2022 going to be a thing of the past if not few and far between without matchplay? Even in the PGA Tour’s WGC Matchplay event we know that the world number 60 can beat the world number one over 18 holes.

Maybe it’s old fashioned thinking but looking through an amateur championship leaderboard after 36 holes and seeing the top-4 players and the 61st to 64th player and knowing that anyone can still win is a romanticist view that perhaps doesn’t have a place in the modern game.

Or, is it only the South of Ireland Championship in Lahinch that boasts the coveted 36-hole strokeplay, last-64 matchplay format that gives the opportunity to everyone who qualifies to dare to dream? The Colm Campbell, Peter O’Keeffe final of this year, two part-timers, in their thirties and forties, was one that will live long in the memory.

Yes, formats of 72-holes of strokeplay will bring the cream to the top most of the time and probably is the best way to prepare our amateurs for a career in the professional ranks, but surely it is sacrificing the romanticism that makes Irish amateur golf so great?

In a world where professional golf is becoming so bland outside of a few weeks of the year, there is no need for amateur golf to follow suit.

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