Eighteen years ago, the Cork man was one of the top amateurs in the country with Close and East of Ireland titles already in the locker. In that 1991 championship, he was third leading qualifier behind Tom Cleary and Colm Carew and defeated Cork club mate Hugh Mackeown (at the 23rd), John Hutchinson (at the 20th), local man and last year’s captain Tom Corridan and Enda McMenamin before going down on the 18th in the semi-final to another Cork Golf Club member, Niall Goulding, who in turn lost in the final to Ulster’s Gary McNeill.
O’Sullivan reacquainted himself with the course by playing pro-ams on each of the last two days. He found it in outstanding condition but quickly recognised the importance of keeping the ball on the fairways.
“The rough is really severe and it’s a case of goodnight if you put it in there,” he reported. “It’s real jungle stuff. Only one tee, the fifth, has been moved forward by 30 or 40 yards but there is plenty of run on the ball. I love this place but some of the others feel it is a little quirky, which is surprising to me as I believe this is what links golf is all about.
“If the weather remains as favourable as it has been for the past couple of days, a score of nine under might be needed to win. It has been playing as easy as we’re ever going to find it but that could all change if we get a meaningful wind over the three days.”
At 61, it would be some achievement for O’Sullivan to challenge for the first prize of €52,500 or indeed the €35,000 and €24,500 on offer for second and third place. But he is quietly confident he can make an impression over the 54 holes with consistency one of his most impressive attributes since he joined the Seniors Tour at the age of 50. Not alone has he captured six titles but he has never been outside the top 40 in the order of merit in his 11 years on the circuit.
Nevertheless, hopes of a second Irish win in the tournament – to follow that of Kilrush man Joe McDermott at Woodbrook in 1998 – would appear to rest more with former Ryder Cup stars Eamonn Darcy and Des Smyth and former amateur international Jimmy Heggarty.
Darcy and Smyth haven’t played Ballybunion since the 2000 Murphys Irish Open. Smyth tied for sixth after rounds of 65, 70, 70 and 71 for eight under 276 and Darcy missed the cut. Smyth plays today with tournament favourite Ian Woosnam and the holder, Juan Quiros of Spain, at 9.55am today. Woosnam also played Ballybunion in the 2000 Irish Open but finished down the field.
Sam Torrance, right on Woosie’s tail with the bookies, missed the cut on that occasion but he has otherwise fared extremely well on his visits to this country, most notably when winning the Irish Open at Portmarnock in 1981 and again at Mount Juliet in 1995 along with the Seniors title at Fota Island in 2006. The Scot has already captured the Barbados Open and believes he is well suited to this week’s challenge.
“The field looks very strong and Ballybunion promises to be a magnificent place to play this event,” he said.
Jimmy Heggarty led the Seniors Tour School last November, and is sitting pretty right now in the order of merit in third place with €35,000, thanks to claiming second spot in the Brunei Masters.
Another to keep a close eye out for is England’s Roger Chapman, who hopes to build on his fine start to his Senior Tour career after finishing third on his debut in Majorca after leading going into the final round.
Notable tee times today:
8.40am Andrew Murray, Jimmy Heggarty, Bobby Lincoln.
9.25am Noel Ratcliffe, Seiji Ebihara, Delroy Cambridge.
9.55am Ian Woosnam, Des Smyth, Juan Quiros.
10.40am Peter Mitchell, Tony Johnstone, Mike Harwood.
11am Carl Mason, Jose Rivero, Denis O’Sullivan.
11.10am Jim Rhodes, Doug Johnson, Roger Chapman.
11.25am Sam Torrance, Eamonn Darcy, Costantino Rocca.
11.35am Mike Clayton, Giuseppi Cali, Gordon Brand Jnr.