The action tees off with the first of two strokeplay qualifying rounds at the superb Co Louth links today, with the top 64 making Monday’s first round of matchplay combat with high hopes of progressing to Wednesday’s final.
This year, it’s a draw with a difference and that’s not because just 143 players are teeing it up instead of 144 (there were so many withdrawals that the GUI exhausted its list of reserves and does not take non-entrants) but because 11 of Ireland’s top-20 world-ranked players are competing in the clashing (and highly prestigious) St Andrews Links Trophy at the Home of Golf.
The scheduling anomaly will be rectified next year when the Irish Close Championship is played in the same week in August as the closed championships of Scotland, England and Wales. But the absences are also a stark reminder that the amateur game has changed forever.
Elite amateurs with ambitions to turn professional with a big title on their CVs or those who want to play for Great Britain and Ireland in this year’s St Andrews Trophy or next year’s Walker Cup, are loathe to give up the opportunity to strut their stuff in front of the selectors.
The huge World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR) points available is another reason for the presence of world amateur No 10 Gavin Moynihan, Paul Dunne, West of Ireland winner Jack Hume, Dermot McElroy, reigning Close champion Cormac Sharvin, Gary Hurley, Rory McNamara, Reeve Whitson, Robbie Cannon, Eugene Smith and Richard O’Donovan in the Old Grey Toon rather than Termonfeckin.
The Island’s Moynihan won the Scottish Amateur Open on Sunday and rocketed 253 spots to 10th in the world as it was classed an A-strength field compared to the East of Ireland, which had an E-strength field. The Irish Amateur Open, for example, is B-strength.
With the top international amateur events now using the WAGR to fill their fields, it’s no surprise that the Close — an E-class event — has lost out to St Andrews.
Lenehan, the 26-year old plus-three handicapper from Portmarnock, was in the St Andrews field but pulled out partly due to work commitments but mainly to take advantage of the chance to put himself in the frame for a full Irish cap with a big week at Seapoint.
“Whoever wins, in 10 years’ time nobody is going to say that the other guys were away,” said Lenehan, the 15th highest ranked Irish amateur in the world, at 511th. “It’s important to get a win when it comes down to picking teams. There is a strong nucleus of around 15 or 16 Irish players vying for places and if you have a win behind you, it’s a good argument for your cause. It’s a shame about the clash with St Andrews and I was keen to play because I might never get a chance to qualify off my world ranking again. But it’s also a chance to do well in the Close.”
There is still a top field at Seapoint, which includes recently crowned East of Ireland champion Colm Campbell and former Close winner Pat Murray from Limerick.
Still, course co-designer and two-time Irish Close champion Declan Branigan is less than impressed with the absentees.
“Movements like that take away from our own tournaments,” said the 66-year old. “I don’t know what it is with the Irish — overseas agronomists are better than the Irish, overseas designers are better than the Irish, overseas tournaments are better than the Irish tournaments... chasing world rankings points is all very well but this is not a professional game we are playing.”