Runaway leading qualifier Ronan Mullarney from Galway is a stronger favourite than ever to capture the AIG Irish Close Championship at Ballybunion this week having needed only 28 holes to come through yesterday’s opening two match-play rounds.
However, the Galwegian’s respect for the famous Old Course grew ever greater as the rain of Sunday’s second qualifying round was replaced by a powerful wind whipping in off the Atlantic Ocean that meant only the most precise ball striking would suffice if the great links was to be met on equal terms.
After disposing of Marc Boucher (Carton House) in the afternoon’s second round, Mullarney provided a fascinating account of the severe challenge presented by one of the game’s most famous challenges.
“This afternoon was ground hurling, it was really tough and a good test,” he said.
“Putting is the toughest. If you put your putter down behind the ball and a big gust of wind comes and the ball hits off your putter, it’s a penalty shot. When you’re over the ball, you’re hesitant not just about line and pace but you are hesitant in case your ball is going to move so it’s another factor to add in.”
The 23-year-old is the man to beat over the next couple of days, his prospects not harmed by the elimination in yesterday’s first round of recent South of Ireland Championship winner Sean Desmond (Monkstown); second leading qualifier and last year’s runner-up Eoin Leonard (Killiney); 2018 St Andrews Links winner John Murphy (Kinsale); the well fancied Peter O’Keeffe (Douglas); and Alan Lowry (Esker Hills), brother of Open champion Shane.
Mullarney now meets Niall Hearns of Mountrath in the first match of the third round this morning, and they will be followed by a fascinating encounter involving two stalwarts of Co Sligo, TJ Ford and Sean Flanagan. Both families have long been closely identified with the Rosses Point club while the players themselves have been proudly maintaining that tradition with some excellent performances throughout the year even if Flanagan, a beaten semi-finalist in the recent South of Ireland Championship, is now attached to Portmarnock.
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The biggest threat to Mullarney may well come from the experienced, 32 year-old Warrenpoint man Colm Campbell whose career has been badly hampered in recent times by a left hand injury.
The lynchpin of highly successful Irish teams in the Home Internationals and already winner of the Irish Amateur Open and the East of Ireland, he hopes that he is now back to full fitness and that certainly looked to be the case yesterday when he won impressively against two members of the Castle club, Peter McKeever and Robert Moran.
The host club has plenty to look forward to with their own Edward Stack safely through having beaten the promising Ulsterman Matthew McLean (Malone) in a terrific second round match on the final green.
Stack’s progress is all the more impressive given that McLean is currently sixth in the Bridgestone GUI Order of Merit table.
It was also an outstanding day for two young Corkmen, Greg O’Mahony (Fota Island) and Cathal Butler (Kinsale). The former, winner earlier this year of the Douglas Scratch Cup, got home at the 17th against the seasoned Portmarnock player, James Fox, while Butler, who shot a splendid opening qualifying round of 68 on Saturday, beat Conor Ryan (Dun Laoghaire), conqueror in the first round of last year’s runner-up Eoin Leonard (Killiney), by 3 and 1.