This year’s Irish Close Championship at Headfort Golf Club was one of the best displays of golf I have ever seen live. It had absolutely everything.
Tallaght-based Garda Quentin Carew produced one of the great performances in Irish golf as he came from four down at the turn to oust the all-conquering Hugh Foley on the 20th hole for his first major title.
That’s the beauty of match play. The 64th and final qualifier from the strokeplay stages embarking on a fairy tale run to the final and getting over the line to beat Ireland’s best amateur player this year.
That’s the drama and surprise that knockout sport can provide. You’ve heard it all before. ‘Anything can happen over 90 minutes.’
‘Anything can happen over 70 minutes,’ is also what I tell myself every time I step onto the 111 Bus Eireann from Athboy to Croke Park before Meath get absolutely annihilated by the far financially superior Dublin on their home patch even though we are force-fed this myth it’s a neutral venue.
But yeah, I’m over it, we’ll get them in the league on a freezing cold Sunday in Navan. You’ll see.
But that’s the beauty of sport, the hope that the impossible can become possible. That David can beat Goliath.
Upsets have been galore in this year’s World Cup but in my opinion, no sporting upset came more surprising than the run of Carew in August.
Match play and strokeplay is a completely different game of golf. Not just at amateur level but even at the very top level of the game.
The 2020 World Golf Championship Match Play always sticks out to me as a glaring example of what can happen. In golf, anybody can beat anybody over 18 holes.
That was evident two years ago in Texas when just three of the top-30 seeds made it out of the 64-player group stages and into the knockout stages as a plethora of star names crashed out.
Some of the great match play players are often not serial winners in normal strokeplay – think of Ian Poulter, Paul McGinley, Luke Donald etc. There are some great cup teams in football who can’t quite go the distance in a full-season league format.
Carew’s win over Foley this summer was one of the great upsets and one of the great stories in golf and Golf Ireland’s decision to change the format for next year’s Close from match play to stroke play reduces the likelihood of such a feat, but it makes sense.
Match play often suits the battlers and the grinders, the same names might pop up in the latter stages, but they aren’t always the big names.
The best players don’t often win in match play but over the course of 72 holes the cream should rise to the top which is what usually produces the best major championships at professional level and has seen some great finishes in amateur golf.
There are of course outliers and that will continue to be the case going forward but the stroke play format should see the best players battling it out on the final day.
I often feel for the leading qualifiers. The curse of the leading Q saw Caolan Rafferty, Joshua Hill and Alex Maguire – the latter shooting a course record in the Close – dumped out at the first hurdle in the match play stage of this year’s West, South and Close.
The irony being that the North of Ireland was played over 72 holes of stroke play with Foley pipping Matthew McClean at the death in Portrush.
The decision to change the format from match play to stroke play for 2023 will come in for criticism particularly since 2022 was the year of the working AM with Colm Campbell, Carew and Jake Whelan all earning wins.
But the change was decided before this year’s Close after consultation with elite players, and after Carew’s ‘David’ moment Golf Ireland almost reversed the decision. It’s a shame they didn’t but in a Walker Cup year, the extra WAGR points might prove beneficial for our hopefuls for St Andrews.
The stroke-match play format served our players well at the Amateur Championship as it’s the same format but if you look at all the big events abroad, they are all strokeplay. The Brabazon and the Lytham Trophy in particular.
The decision to switch the North to 72-holes of strokeplay was done last year to encourage more players to venture from across the pond and I believe it will now rival the South and the West as Ireland’s premier male golfing event.
It isn’t all doom and gloom for the working amateur. Match play is a graveyard for planning. At least the 72 holes of strokeplay provides a guarantee for those who need to book days off.
The elite amateur who has designs on going pro will favour stroke play as it builds better golfers while taking away the unpredictability of match play.
I will miss the variety between the Irish Am and Irish Close but strokeplay should bring out the best players.