Stuart Bleakley, a 19-year-old from Shandon Park, became the third member of the illustrious Belfast club to win the Clare Coast Hotels South of Ireland in extremely difficult weather conditions at Lahinch yesterday when he defeated Darragh Coghlan (Portmarnock) in the final by 3 and 2.
Fittingly, David Long, the first Shandon golfer to capture the title in 1974 when he beat Richard Fleury of Portmarnock in the final, was a member of yesterday’s gallery. And by a remarkable coincidence, when Neil Anderson became champion in 1984, the beaten finalist was another Portmarnock man, Mick Morris.
Bleakley’s father Geoff, the former professional at Balmoral Golf Club, acted as caddie and between them they certainly made a formidable pair.
Almost unknown outside his native province until this week, Bleakley said: “I’m still in a little bit of shock as I have never previously been anywhere in a senior championship. But I knew I could do it and having done it, I now know I can beat the best.”
Eanna Griffin, the 21-year-old from Waterford, put up a brave fight in the first semi-final before going down at the 16th to Bleakley. He was joined in the final by the 25-year-old Coghlan, who beat his close friend Richard Knightly (Royal Dublin) by 2 and 1.
Bleakley could hardly have hoped for a better start than to win each of the first three holes, the second with an eagle at the downhill 534 yards par five where he hit a spectacular rescue club shot to less than three feet from the flag. But Coghlan wasn’t giving up without a fight and reduced his arrears with a great par at the difficult 6th before being conceded a birdie 2 from six feet at the 8th with Bleakley in trouble off the tee.
By now a relatively nice day had given way to fierce rain sweeping in off the nearby Atlantic. Bleakley still led by one after nine and went two in front again when getting down in great style from well short of the 10th. Coghlan did win back the long 12th where he splashed out of sand to within a yard or so of the hole but that was as good as it got for him.
Bleakley regained control with wins at the 13th and 14th, both of which Coghlan three-putted before the finish duly came at the 16th with the young Ulsterman getting up and down from sand to clinch victory.
Bleakley proved a worthy winner of a championship that produced some fine matches and good golf but there is consensus now that much has to change if the “South” is to regain its position among the game’s greatest events.
“We have been 113 years building up a wonderful tradition and we intend to maintain that,” said championship chairman Pádraig McInerney.
“We have been in regular touch with the Golfing Union of Ireland and one of the changes we are planning for next year is to start five days earlier on a Wednesday with the semi-finals and final on the Sunday. The main problem with having the necessary quality field in recent years has been the proximity to the Interpros which this year ended only two days before we began.
“They are now being moved and the change means that we will again be part of the Irish team selection process. The match-play element will continue but we have no control over late withdrawals which have caused major problems in recent years.”
South of Ireland Championship semi-finals: S Bleakley (Shandon Park) bt E Griffin (Waterford) 3 and 2;D Coghlan (Portmarnock) bt R Knightly (Royal Dublin) 2 and 1.
Final: Bleakley bt Coghlan 3 and 2.
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