That is especially the case this year, particularly for followers from the southern part of the country, with five of the eight survivors in the second half of today’s third-round from clubs in Cork city and county.
The last match on the course this morning features the veteran Gary O’Flaherty of Cork Golf Club against the highly promising Mallow youngster James Sugrue. They are preceded by John Murphy from Kinsale, another of the up-and-coming brigade, who faces a daunting but doubtless much-welcomed clash with the highly respected Colm Campbell from Warrenpoint.
Before that game, fans will watch with considerable interest as to how former professional and reigning Irish Amateur Open champion Peter O’Keeffe of Douglas fares against another young Kinsale star Cathal Butler.
It all makes for a fascinating day at Lahinch, where the golfers yesterday coped with another extremely testing day.
Several current internationals and other highly rated players lost their way in yesterday’s opening two rounds, but among the big fancies through to the last 16 are current internationals Conor O’Rourke of Naas, at plus-five, the lowest handicapper in the field; leading qualifier Rowan Lester, Colm Campbell; Peter O’Keeffe, holder of the Irish Amateur Open and West of Ireland champion Barry Anderson.
Typical of this great championship, however, there are several others capable of upsetting calculations, including former winners Pat Murray and Robert Cannon and, of course, Gary O’Flaherty.
On another day of high winds and squally showers, the 25-year-old O’Rourke was a stand-out figure, needing just 28 holes to dispose of two formidable opponents in Shane Desmond of Monkstown and Galway’s Joe Lyons and striking the ball with massive authority. O’Rourke now goes forward to meet 18-year-old Thomas Mulligan of Laytown & Bettystown.
Shane Desmond, 19, from Monkstown had displayed his talents in the qualifying rounds, buthe found O’Rourke too much to handle at the same time as Galway veteran Joe Lyons was coming back from two down after 12 against Tyrone Clarke — 19-year-old son of Darren — to get through on the 18th. Lyons is no stranger to this level of competition and O’Rourke had to be at his sharpest before getting home at the 15th.
“Although I am from Naas, I am no relation of Paraic who won the South here at Lahinch on three occasions”, said the impressive 25-year-old O’Rourke. “With time running out before the Walker Cup team for the match against the Americans in Los Angeles in September is chosen, a win here with such a strong entry would stand to me. With five English already pretty sure of places, that leaves only five remaining before the team is picked after the Home Internationals at Moortown in August. For now, though, all I’m thinking about is winning here at home and nowhere better than the South at Lahinch.”
The prospects of O’Rourke and the other favoured players were helped by the first-round defeats of his Irish teammates John Ross Galbraith, holder Conor Purcell, Alex Gleeson and, above all, Tramore’s Robin Dawson, the second seed to O’Rourke, who found Darragh Coghlan (Portmarnock) too much of a handful. He fell behind early on and was never able to make up ground against Coghlan, who reached the Lahinch final in 2015 when losing to Ulsterman Stuart Bleakley. Stuart Grehan, the champion two years ago and yet another hotly tipped, fought a tremendous battle late in the day with Jake Whelan from Newlands before going down on the 18th.
Gary O’Flaherty clearly felt comfortable in the wind over the past few days and never more so than when defeating the United Arab Emirates based Clareman Stephen Loftus in the second round at the 14th. He was followed into the last 16 by James Sugrue, who displayed his growing maturity by getting home at the 17th against Coghlan. Youth had its fling late in the day with fine wins for Cathal Butler and John Murphy.