2024 starts now for Matt McClean at the Connolly Motors West of Ireland

Mark McGowan

Malone's Matthew McClean all smiles at Augusta (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

Mark McGowan

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Alongside local favourite T.J. Ford and long-time sparring partner Hugh Foley, Matthew McClean’s 2024 season is about to get underway when the trio take to the first tee early on Thursday morning as the marquee threeball in the opening round of the Connolly Motors West of Ireland Championship at County Sligo Golf Club,

“Yeah, it should be fun,” he said the after his practice round on the eve of the 07:51 starting time, “a bit of slagging between the three of us, I’m sure, but very early. I’ll get to bed pretty early tonight and I wouldn’t say there’ll be too many balls hit in the morning, a few chips and a few putts and away we go.

Traditionally the opening event of Championship season, with Easter falling early in 2024, the West comes early too so many of the leading contenders are still finding their feet and McClean is no different as he seeks to shake off the cobwebs and set the wheels in motion for what could be another superb year for the Malone man.

“I haven’t really haven’t played a lot in the past few months,” he said. “I just sort of took a bit of a break from golf just going back to work over the winter. And so this is sort of the start of it. This will be the first tournament round since October last year, so we’ll see how we get on. But the course is good, the greens are rolling nice today. I think they’re going to get a bit faster tomorrow, but the course is pretty soft with the amount of rain all of Ireland’s had over the winter and obviously being a few weeks early as well this year for the tournament.

“So by all accounts, the course is looking very good, the rough is down. So, you know, if there’s a bit of decent weather, I’m sure there’s going to be a few decent scores.”

McClean was a quarterfinalist here in 2022 – the first year of the two-year trial period that saw matchplay reduced to the leading 16 strokeplay qualifiers – but was absent for the 2023 staging as he had the small matter of a tournament at Augusta National to attend.

By winning the 2022 US Mid-Amateur, where he incidentally defeated the man who he was sharing a house with that year and will share the first tee with tomorrow, Hugh Foley, he earned invites to both the Masters and the US Open, and less than 24 hours before the 2023 West of Ireland Championship began, McClean did what few golfers have ever done and found himself at the top of the leaderboard at the Masters. Briefly.

Birdies at the first and fourth holes saw him reach two-under – a dream start for any player, especially an amateur making his major championship debut.

“Yeah, that was great, but Rosses Point for the West is pretty special as well,” he half jokes, “but yeah, it was obviously a great year.

“I definitely got a few messages on Instagram, a few screenshots sent pretty early. It was probably when I was out in the course. My phone was on silent but it was probably just buzzing all the way around in the first round on the Thursday.

“I’ve got a photo of that hung up hidden somewhere in the house. It’s not front and center but, yeah, a good memory.”

Standing on that first tee at Augusta National and hearing your name read out is the kind of thing dreams are made of, but surprisingly, the nerves weren’t crippling him like one might expect.

“Honestly, it wasn’t too bad,” he said. “I’d played the course a few times already, so you got that sort of nervous feeling out of the way just by playing the golf course, and I played a bit on the Sunday and there was a decent crowd there.

“Then, Monday morning played with [Shane] Lowry and [Seamus] Power and that was, yeah, I had a big wide off the first tee and that was a bit of a nervy moment. And then thankfully, that was the most nervous moment I had of the week that Monday morning where it didn’t really matter where you hit the golf ball. So come Thursday morning, I felt pretty good.

“I was probably trying to not think about it as much as possible to the extent where I nearly teed off the first with an Airpod in my ear. I was just blanking out everything and mt caddie just gave me a wee nudge and said, you know, ‘take the Airpod out there before you hit the tee shot’.”

Amateur competitors at the Masters traditionally stayed in the Crows Nest, the effective attic of the Augusta National Clubhouse, but the recent trend has been for amateur competitors to spend one night there for tradition’s sake and then stay in more family-friendly lodgings nearby, and McClean was no exception, and even though he feels he probably could’ve, he didn’t make the same mistake Tiger Woods once did by accidentally walking into the Champions Locker Room – the most inner sanctums of inner sanctums – in the middle of the night.

“So we rented a house with my family and a few family friends and my girlfriend came over for the, for the week, so we rented a house about 10 minutes away. But on the Monday night I stayed in the Crow’s Nest – just for that one night.

“It was a great experience, You know, it’s a lovely place; the way you’re treated and everything while you’re there. So you just have the clubhouse to yourself for the evening.

“I slept quite well and once I go to sleep, that’s me and I’ll not wake up until the alarm goes off. But we were down about 10 or maybe 11 o’clock at night and everything is unlocked so you can walk wherever you want. It’s a pretty cool experience, but yeah, you could pretty much go wherever you wanted if you so desired.”

A US Open at LA Country Club, a US Amateur at Cherry Hills, and then arguably the pinnacle in any amateur golfer’s career, a Walker Cup at St. Andrews followed, and unsurprisingly, he has extremely fond memories of taking on the United States at the Home of Golf.

“Yeah, again, a very different experience to the first two I mentioned there, but in some ways, probably the most enjoyable playing with guys that you’ve played with in Ulster the past couple of years and got friendly with as well,” he said.

“So, it was quite clear you were playing there as the main attraction if you like. Whereas if you go to, you know, there’s obviously other guys that the crowds are there for. So it was cool to be there as the guys that people are coming to watch.

“So the crowds felt big. I would say the crowds that week felt as big as the other two weeks together, you know, – the Masters and the US Open – just because there was, I think between 6000 and 8000 people, but there was only four matches on the golf course.

“So everyone was just divided out following those matches and all the crowd can get in real close to you.”

Naturally, having had a taste of Walker Cup action, it’s an experience he’d love to replicate, especially with the venues scheduled for the next two stagings which may not be St. Andrews, but are pretty close to the next best thing for an Irishman.

“You’d wish you could play it every year,” he fondly recalls. “Obviously a very difficult team to make is one issue with that, but if you can make the team, obviously you’d want to play it as many times as you can because it’s a great experience and obviously the next one in ’25 is over in Cyprus Point in California, which, you know, is an incredible place and then in ’26 straight after at Lahinch.

“So, yeah, 100% if you’re still amateur, you would really love to play those events.”

If he is still amateur, of course. But depending on how things go this year, and at his planned Q-School tilt towards the end of the year, he may not be. But time will tell.

Either way, it all starts here at Rosses Point. The West is awake.

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