Home favourite Ronan Mullarney scored a significant victory as he took out defending champion Alex Gleeson at the AIG Irish Amateur Close in Galway.
Mullarney booked his place in the last 16 after a convincing 5&4 win against Gleeson in round two. Now the only Galway player left, Mullarney is relishing the challenge.
“It would mean a lot to win here,” said Mullarney. “There’s something comforting about where to go and not to go, and knowing lines of putts.”
The 21-year-old is on familiar terrain this week, having come through the junior ranks at Galway. And he put local knowledge to good use against Gleeson with three birdies in the last five holes to secure the match with four holes to spare.
“I didn’t want to give him [Gleeson} anything because he can string off five or six birdies in a row,” said Mullarney, who was four up through eight. Gleeson chipped in for birdie to win the ninth but Mullarney responded immediately.
“10 was a big birdie especially after Alex chipping in,” Mullarney reflected.
His first round encounter pitted him against clubmate Brian Timlin but again Mullarney showed no mercy, winning 5&3. Next he faces Dundalk’s Caolan Rafferty, who had one hole to spare against Jonathan Yates.
While it was a good day for Mullarney, leading qualifier Peter Kerr saw his title hopes dashed by Co Sligo’s Cian Feeney. Kerr had already been to the brink in his opening match with Michael Shiel from Galway Bay and only advanced at the first extra hole.
The sense of relief did not last long for Kerr, who found himself four down after four holes against Feeney. Kerr managed to win the next three holes and had pulled level by the 12th but Feeney turned the screw again at 13 and made par at 16, which all but sealed victory.
“It was a good win against Peter,” said Feeney. “I’m delighted to get through. The conditions are tough out there. Par will win most holes.”
Feeney, 20, is studying Business and Accountancy at Maynooth University, and counts Sean Flanagan and David Brady among his contemporaries from Co Sligo. His familiarity with Galway stems from experience playing Fred Daly matches as a junior.
“I’ve played Galway a lot. I love the place. My game is solid enough, I’m looking forward to tomorrow,” he said ahead of his round three meeting with Robbie Pierse.
A quarter finalist at the Close two years ago, Pierse was second at the East of Ireland this season and cruised through the first day of match play combat, recording an 8&7 win in round one before taking out Niall Hearns 3&2.
And yet, with seven holes to play in qualifying, Pierse feared an early exit.
“I played so bad for the first two days, like awful,” he said. “It was the worst I’ve played all year. I just chipped and putted like a God.”
Pierse was one shot outside the cut with seven holes left in round two. Plucky, he managed to make ground on the closing stretch and grind out a score.
“I missed the last five greens but played them in one under so I was very lucky to make the cut,” Pierse admitted. “On 17, I hit three balls into the gorse. I found my first ball, hacked it out and pitched in for birdie. I may as well have shot 62 yesterday I was in such good form on the way home.”
After a comfortable win against Brian Shally in round one, Pierse was paired with Niall Hearns in the afternoon.
“I won six holes on the front nine and felt like I could have won eight of them,” said Pierse, who was three clear at the turn. “He [Hearns] was at his debs last night so I was waiting for him to get tired. It didn’t happen. He’s a good player.”
Pierse would love to emulate his uncle, Arthur, and add another major championship to the family collection.
“I feel like I’m a due a good week,” he said. “There’s so many guys who could win, you never know who’s going to win. It’s so hard to beat anyone out there, never mind win six matches.”
Like Pierse, Warrenpoint’s Jamie Fletcher was knocked out at the quarter final stage in 2015, when he was beaten by eventual champion Tiarnan McLarnon, and after taking down clubmate Colm Campbell in round two, he has every right to feel confident about his chances at Galway.
“Winning a championship is the main goal,” said Fletcher, who captured the North of Ireland Stroke Play in 2016.
After dispatching Jordan Hood 6&5 in round one, Fletcher put friendship aside to book his place in the last 16.
“I’m good mates with Collie,” said Fletcher of his round two clash with Campbell. “He is number one in the club. I look up to him.”
Fresh from winning the Father and Son Invitational at Waterville, Hugh Foley (The Royal Dublin) moved into round three of the Close where he will face Fletcher for a place in the quarter finals.
Bushfoot’s Owen Crooks will meet Tramore’s Robin Dawson while Co Sligo’s Sean Flanagan plays Paul Coughlan (Castleknock), who carded a 66 in round one. Ryan McKinstry (Cairndhu) is up against Aaron Ryan (Thurles); Patrick Brennan (Belvoir Park) faces David Kitt (Athenry); and Liam Grehan (Mullingar) plays Marc Norton (Belvoir Park).