Des Smyth will never forget the first time he saw Rory McIlroy hit a golf ball. "Oh my God," was his reaction. This weekend, a new generation of young Irish golfers will be at Seapoint for the Irish Amateur Close Championship.
Des Smyth and Declan Branigan: The boyhood pals were young stars of the 1960s.
Seapoint will be the centre of the Irish golfing universe this weekend when it hosts the blue riband Irish Amateur Close Championship for the first time.
The arrival of the top amateur tournament in the land would be a little more than a run-of-the-mill experience for the biggest clubs in the country — the Portmarnocks, Royal Dublins, Royal County Downs and Co Sligos of the world. But for the 21-year old links course designed by boyhood pals Des Smyth and Declan Branigan, it’s a big deal.
Were it not for the fact that it lives in the shadow of its more famous neighbour, County Louth, it’s quite likely that Seapoint Golf Links would rate far higher on any list of great championship venues, or even of Ireland’s select family of links courses.
As Smyth, one of Paul McGinley’s Ryder Cup vice captains for September’s clash with the USA points out: “It’s a great thrill to see the Irish Championship coming to Seapoint. Declan and I were approached to do a golf course here over 20 years ago and it’s exciting to see what’s happened in those 20 years.
“To bring the course to this standard as Declan has done with people who work with him and the club, it’s a great credit to them. We’ve played one or two professional events here — two Irish Professional Championships and the Glen Dimplex Tournament — and the players have always been impressed with the challenge.
“But this it the top of the tree as regards the GUI and their national championship. And it’s a great thrill. A great honour for the club as well. And I’d like to congratulate the captain and previous captains and committees for bringing the course and the club this far, and that it is considered a worthy test to bring such a championship here.
“They have modified lots of things here since Declan and I first laid out the course, and every move has been a good one. It’s a good challenge and well up to what’s happening.”
Smyth is being modest about a course that opened for play in June 1993 after giving Branigan, his old pal from their boyhood days at Laytown and Bettystown in the 1950s and early 60s, more than a few sleepless nights.
“It took a year to build and two years to grow in,” says the now 66-year-old Branigan, still a formidable player, though he has let his handicap slide to three after close to 40 years as a scratch player.
Winner of 49 Irish caps as well as two West of Irelands, two Irish Close Championships and two East of Ireland titles, Branigan’s shock of fair hair is still the same as it was in the halcyon days of the 1970s and 1980s, when he won an unprecedented three Willie Gill Awards, the Order of Merit for Irish amateurs.
A respected agronomist and course designer, he’s dedicated more than 20 years to making Seapoint a test worthy of a great championship.
But it wasn’t easy.
“It’s one thing growing in a sand green and another thing growing in 240 acres of sand when you don’t have irrigation,” he says. “When we were growing in the course, I woke up at night at three or four in the morning when there was gale blowing thinking, ‘There’s some farmer in the Isle of Man wondering where this lovely fescue came from.’
“It was a very difficult job and every year, it is improving. When people come, they are going to get a big shock. Off the blue tees, it is a very challenging test of golf. The challenge is that every hole tests something or other — your courage, your intelligence, your touch, your guile...
“This is very much like watching a child grow up and graduate from college. We’ve worked hard to get the course ready for this and it will be wonderful to see how the top players manage it. It’s a proud week for the club.”
Sadly for lovers of domestic golf, this year’s Irish Close Championship clashes with the St Andrews Links Trophy at the Home of Golf, which means that the holder Cormac Sharvin as well as Walker Cup player Gavin Moynihan, West of Ireland champion Jack Hume, former Irish Amateur Open winner Robert Cannon, US college star Paul Dunne and internationals Gary Hurley, Rory McNamara, Reeve Whitson and Richard O’Donovan will all be in Scotland.
With others, such as The Island’s Paul McBride and Faithlegg’s Robin Dawson doing the Leaving Certificate, the field is somewhat decimated. But the GUI has plans to move the event back to its once traditional August date next year, which should guarantee a bumper field.
With the East of Ireland Championship concluding at County Louth yesterday, the Termonfeckin area is the epicentre of Irish amateur golf, as club captain Dan Reynolds points out.
“Two major championships in the same parish in the same week is not something that happens very often,” the captain said. “We need to make sure that those taking up the game have access to advice and assistance in learning how to play. It is equally important that Irish golfers have access to the best players in Ireland. We contribute to this philosophy and that is why we have hosted the PGA Championship and this week’s Irish Amateur Close.”
Smyth believes it’s also an opportunity for golf aficionados to see some of the stars of the future, reminding him of the first time he set eyes on Rory McIlroy.
“As the captain said, to have the East of Ireland and the Irish championship in the one parish is absolutely fantastic. And he’s right to say that and to be encouraging junior golf and kids. I played nine holes in Baltray with a guy from Dublin yesterday. He was 20, and the standard blew me away.
“I remember going to Baltray to watch a young Rory McIlroy play the East of Ireland six or seven years ago. I remember one shot he played. I walked the back nine with him and he was carrying his own bag because he had just had a row with his father. He had banned the father from carrying the bag and I was nearly going to pick the bag up but I didn’t know him well enough.
“Anyway, I walked the back nine with him and he hit a drive down the 18th. And I walked over beside where his drive finished and saw he had 230 yards to a pin cut back right. It was very difficult to get on the green, never mind think about getting it close.
“And this lad, he was about 15 or 16 at the time, he walked up, took one look and whipped out a three iron and hit the most perfect fade shot to 10 feet and I thought, ‘Oh my God, here is a star in the making.’
“And we have seen what has subsequently happened. To think we will have kids like that here next week, I’d encourage kids to come down here and watch the stars of the future. In a blink we could have another Pádraig Harrington or Rory McIlroy emerge next week. I think that’s the exciting part of hosting major championships. You have the possibility of possibly seeing the next superstar. I’m excited.”
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