The South of Ireland is the penultimate event in the Bridgestone Order of Merit and with Robin Dawson absent from Lahinch, a new leader could emerge.
The top two players in the Bridgestone series will gain automatic selection on the Ireland team for the Home Internationals in September but there are just two more chances for points to be won. At the South of Ireland sponsored by Pierce Motors, which runs from today the 25th until the 29th of July, Mallow’s James Sugrue defends the title and the Bridgestone series concludes following the AIG Irish Close at The European Club next month (4-8 August).
Currently sixth in the standings, Sugrue has the chance to go top with a win at the South. Long-time leader Dawson is absent from Lahinch because of a clash with the St Andrews Trophy and that leaves the door open for others to move into the automatic positions. Castle’s Alex Gleeson lies second and has a 147-point advantage over Sugrue but Robert Brazill (Naas), Mark Power (Kilkenny) and Eanna Griffin (Waterford) are also within striking distance.
“Hopefully I can make the Home Internationals. That’s the plan,” said Sugrue ahead of the South.
It has been the brightest of summers and only the best will shine at Lahinch this week as the South of Ireland comes to town for the 117th staging of Ireland’s oldest provincial championship.
The Old Course has seen it all since the tournament was first played in 1895 but there has not been a successful defence of the title since Michael Guerin from Killarney completed his hat-trick 1963. Sugrue carries the mantle of defending champion this time around and the 21-year-old is excited about the return trip.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “It should be a good week. It was raining and quite windy last year. I’m told the course is fairly brown at this stage so the conditions will be completely different to last year.”
Sugrue tamed high winds in last year’s final, powering to victory with an exhibition of ball striking that was complemented by a much improved putting display.
The Cork native had been frustrated by his performances on the greens and turned to the AimPoint method in a bid to bolster his putting returns. It certainly had the desired effect as Sugrue defeated Peter O’Keeffe, last year’s Flogas Irish Amateur Open champion, in the semis before dispatching St Andrews Links Trophy winner Conor O’Rourke 3&2 in the final.
“I was missing a lot of putts on the high side,” Sugrue explained. “My stroke was good but my reading of the greens was poor. I now play a little less break on my putts.”
Nothing beats holing putts, particularly in match play, and Sugrue has continued to trend in the right direction this season. He finished inside the top 10 at the Flogas Irish Amateur Open in May and made the cut at The Amateur Championship, where he bowed out in the third round. He won a regional qualifying event for The Open at Co Louth with a superb round of 64 and although he did not make it through from Final Qualifying, he watched with interest how the players handled the conditions at Carnoustie.
“All the players that finished well were the ones that were hitting it straight and hitting a lot of long irons,” said Sugrue. “I think if you take a similar game plan to Tiger Woods, you won’t be far away at Lahinch.”
His coach, Michael Collins, has been advocating 2-iron off the tee, which combined with a lower ball flight should help him take full advantage of the fast, firm conditions. Sugrue still expects to take driver on occasion provided his ball is taking a direct route to the target.
“My game is a lot stronger and more consistent this year,” he reflects. “I couldn’t have seen myself shooting eight under last year.”
In fact, he posted rounds of 79 and 77 in stroke play qualifying last year, and still made the cut with four shots to spare, an indication of just how tough it played. Sugrue the pretender is now a serious contender to win back-to-back championships but he is not the only with title ambitions.
Ireland international Rowan Lester has a real affinity with Lahinch, winning the silver medal as leading qualifier last year having reached the final in 2016. Fellow internationals Gleeson, Caolan Rafferty (Dundalk) and Peter O’Keeffe (Douglas) will also fancy their chances.
Live scores from Lahinch HERE