On a par with the best

BIG things are expected of Oliver Doherty. Yesterday, the gentle golfing giant from Donegal with a club handicap of six proved those expectations to be well founded when shooting 92 and dominating the Portmarnock field.

National coach, Dan O'Connell, was amongst those who predicted that the northerner would dominate the sport. Now he believes that Doherty, who holds a one shot lead, will finish as the number one player of these World Games

"He would be in the highest level according to his ability and I would still expect he will be the No 1 golfer of those Special Olympics," O'Connell insisted.

"But it should be remembered that everybody here is competing according to his or her ability and against competitors of similar ability. Oliver, however, is competing at the highest level. I think today, once all the hype has died down, he will get down to it."

O'Connell, a Cork native should know. After all, he has been involved with the Special Olympics for 28 years. He began as coach to the Irish football team in Baton Rouge when the Games were staged for only the second time and, since then, he has been passionately involved.

But it was in boxing he made his name. A former boxer himself, he became one of the youngest administrators in the game under Victor Aston in Cork, holding executive positions at county and provincial levels.

He was assistant coach to the Irish boxing team for the Montreal Olympics in 1976 and went on to become one of Ireland's best ever referees. He was an AIBA (world body) referee and is currently a member of the European Technical and Rules Commission, the most powerful body within EABA.

A member of the Board of Directors of Special Olympics Ireland, he was understandably proud of the success of their production, which has won world-wide acclaim.

"I remember Louisiana and the second Special Olympics World Games and thinking at the time they were just mind blowing," he said. "I thought it was an enormous event. Then Ireland hosted the first European Games and the whole movement began to take on a new dimension.

"That really started the ball rolling in terms of European involvement and here we are today the first country outside the US to host the World Games.

"We have been working on it for a good six years now. First we had to see if it would be feasible for us to stage the Games and then we submitted our bid which was successful."

The organisation in the USA had set a remarkable standard that was always going to be difficult to equal. But O'Connell always knew that Ireland would rise to the challenge.

"With the Games at home there was always going to be the temptation to produce a team that would win everything, but they avoided this by adhering to their system of selection.

"The system we have to pick teams from Ireland is one of random selection," he said. "We have a huge number of athletes who have won gold medals at national level all of whom would qualify to compete here this week but we are allocated quotas on an international basis and that just would not be possible.

"So we placed all of our gold medallists from our national games into a hat and it was a random selection. For every gold medallist we have competing here there are two not here but it is not because those athletes are better that they are here."

When athletes get to the Games they go through a system of classification that ensures each one is competing against athletes of a similar level of ability ­ a process that has dominated competition so far.

"There are no elitist or carded athletes here," he said. "You compete against your peers as close as we can get you in that group. It is the purest form of sport you are going to see on this planet," he said.

"They put in fairly serious training, watch diet and weekly logs were submitted each month to the national coaches.

"You may not have recognised them, but it is highly likely you have seen those athletes training or walking on the highways and byways."

There are 20 Irish golfers competing this week ­ 10 male and 10 female ­ with 11 competing at level one which concentrates on golf skills ­ long putt, short putt, pitch shot, chip shot, long iron shot and wedge shot ­ five attempts at each, each day with scores carried forward until they complete five rounds.

Competitors who have gone through this in previous years will compete at level two which is a nine hole foursomes, or nine hole alternate shot as it is called in Special Olympics. In this they will be joined by a club golfer and they will hit every second shot, putting the skills they have learned into practice.

This week there are thee pairs competing, the father and son combination of Francis and Dermot Shortt from The Curragh, Liam Spillane from Douglas Street in Cork who has Pauline O'Callaghan, a past President of Harbour Point GC as his partner, and John Monaghan, a Special Olympian from Dublin who is partnered by his aunt, Martha McAllister.

From here they advance to the next level where they play nine holes on their own with a caddy and there are two Irish golfers in action in this category this week Ruth O'Mahony from Cork with her caddy, Maura Cashman, both of whom play out of Harbour Point, and another Cork golfer, Kevin O'Callaghan, who has his father, Joe, as caddy.

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