Tickets to the Masters tournament at Augusta are as precious as gold dust and usually available only to long-standing patrons and the very privileged.
However, if the many hundreds of Mallow clubmates, who cheered James Sugrue to victory in the 124th R&A Amateur Championship at Portmarnock on Saturday, demonstrate the same resilience in their pursuit of the precious pass as their hero displayed in landing one of the amateur game’s two Holy Grails, North Cork accents are certain to abound in Georgia next April!
The 22-year-old combined golfing brilliance with a pleasant, sporting demeanour from the time the first drives of an exhausting week were struck last Monday had endeared him to a whole band of new supporters. And as James drew ever nearer to the title, which would qualify him for the Masters but also next month’s Open at Royal Portrush, the US Amateur (Pinehurst, August 12-18), the 2020 US Open, and an automatic place on the British & Irish Walker Cup team, the numbers grew to such an extent that close to 3,000 were present for the dramatic climax on Saturday afternoon.
Sugrue, ranked 231st in the world rankings against the 71st of his Scottish opponent Euan Walker, used a new Titleist driver to keep his ball below the capricious North Dublin wind and played beautifully controlled golf throughout.
He produced birdies at crucial stages, such as at the 36th hole on Tuesday when ensuring qualification for the matchplay rounds.
If crucial putts needed to be holed, they usually found the target. And when the pressure was applied at various stages of tight matches, he was equal to the task.
Having led by five after the first nine of the 36 and three ahead at the halfway stage, he was hauled back to level pegging by a determined opponent whose match levelling birdie 2 at the 15th was his fifth of the afternoon. To say the vast majority of a huge gallery were by now suffering severe heart palpitations would be an understatement.
“I was very worried when it went back to all square, very worried,” he admitted. “Euan doesn’t really hit bad shots and I wasn’t expecting to be given holes.
I had to create opportunities myself and thankfully it worked.
Willed on by his wildly excited supporters, Sugrue won the 35th with a par after Walker found trouble off the tee and sealed victory at the last when his opponent again pushed his tee shot right and failed with two putts from the back of the green.
“It is hard to believe really, just to think about this win and everything that comes with is unbelievable,” said the powerfully built Mallowman.
“All the crowds that were out there, it’s incredible. I did it for the crowds, really. I didn’t want all those people who came out to support me to see me end up losing. It’s more relief than anything else to get over the line, especially after being three up going into the afternoon session. I’m just delighted to do it.”
Sugrue was given a guard of honour by some 200 proud members of the Mallow club on his return around midnight on Saturday with the magnificent 124-year-old trophy and his parents Michael and Margaret and caddie and longtime friend, Conor Dowling.
The hero was so excited that the inevitable fatigue after playing nine rounds of golf in six days over one of the toughest links in the game never bothered him. He now has less than a month to settle himself before undertaking another daunting task, the Open Championship at Royal Portrush.
“I can’t wait, it’s unreal,” he glowed. “I’m really looking forward to it. I love Portrush, it’s probably one of my favourite links courses, second favourite to Portmarnock.
With the other major championship opportunities, it’s incredible to think about it and I’m really looking forward to what lies ahead. I was thinking about turning pro at the end of the year but that can wait now.
Losing finalist Walker, from Kilmarnock, and Sugrue are good friends and he accepted the outcome with good grace: “I was pretty nervous this morning, I don’t think there is anybody in my position that wouldn’t be nervous. I’ve never played on such a big stage before. It wasn’t the huge crowd that was a challenge, it was the match itself as James is playing so well. It was a great week and I’m absolutely gutted to lose.”
Sugrue becomes the eighth Irish winner of the British Amateur after Alan Dunbar (Rathmore) 2012; Brian McElhinney (North West) 2005; Michael Hoey (Shandon Park) 2001; Garth McGimpsey (Bangor) 1985; Joe Carr (Sutton) 1960, 1958, 1953; Max McCready (Sunningdale & Dunmurry) at Portmarnock, 1949; Jimmy Bruen (Cork) 1946.