Ivan Morris Column - My observations on the South of Ireland

Limerick Leader golf columnist Ivan Morris
In this week’s Limerick Leader column, Ivan Morris looks back on the recent South of Ireland championship in Lahinch.

In this week’s Limerick Leader column, Ivan Morris looks back on the recent South of Ireland championship in Lahinch.

The new look South of Ireland Golf Championship at Lahinch made some giant strides forward last week. The fact that the Irish team for the Home Internationals was selected directly after the tournament was a huge boost.

The golf course could not have been better prepared either. It was right up to Open Championship standard. It must have been sheer joy to play. Three golfers played their way onto the Irish team with outstanding performances, Stuart Grehan, Paul McBride and Colin Fairweather. It’s a while since so much notice was taken of The South. For once, I have no quibbles. Sometimes the selectors get it right. This year’s outstanding performer, Cormac Sharvin (Ardglass) was not available because he is playing in the US Amateur - a brave and expensive undertaking!

Overall, the standard of play at Lahinch this year was at a level above what my generation ever managed thirty years ago and on a far stiffer golf course. While golfers of yore employed a full array of inventive shots, controlling trajectory and caressing the ball into position, today’s young bulls take a ‘dead aim’ and overpower the courses.  

Technology has changed golf. Equipment, especially the ball, has made the game too easy for talented youths. The modern ball and driving clubs have combined to eliminate sidespin. Before you say: “The game isn’t any easier for me.”

This situation has come about because anyone who learnt to play golf prior to 1990 swung in a different way and is now too old to learn the power game even if capable of it. Conversely, if you asked a twenty-something to play with a balata ball and woodenheaded, steel-shafted driver, they would struggle. One must also recognize that there is deeper competition in championships today thanks to better coaching, better techniques and stronger, fitter bodies.

The only thing that has continually stayed the same is the size of the hole. I will elaborate on this vexed issue soon.

I didn’t see the one shot that ‘lit up’ Lahinch and had everyone talking but if I had I might have fainted. Paul McBride (Island GC) hit a drive past the Klondike on Lahinch’s, par-5, fourth hole on Thursday and ‘dinked a little wedge’ onto the green. The base of Klondike Hill is 311-yards from the blue tee. Add it’s another 40 or 50-yards to get to where his ball was. No! He didn’t drive over the dune.

He drove past it on the right. There was wind assistance but no hurricane. It’s not the distance so much as the topography he had to contend with that made his shot so memorable. McBride is a joy to watch because he plays with an efficient and brisk pre-shot routine without the over-deliberate antics of so many others but he needs to stop muttering ‘negativities’ to himself constantly while playing.

Not in the highest echelon of Irish golf yet, McBride soon will be. A lovely, crisp iron player, he is unusual in that he plays the game in different ‘power gears.’ Definitely someone to keep an eye on for the future. Currently, McBride is on scholarship at Wake Forest University in North Carolina - there’s no better training ground.

Limerick golf was well represented at Lahinch with Andrew McCormack from Newcastlewest and Castletroy figured prominently in the qualifying section with two fine scores of 71, 73. Pat Murray, playing as well as ever, only went out on the 23rd to Keith Egan (Carton House) in the quarterfinal after what was easily the best contested and highest quality match all week. 19-years old, Mark MacGrath, delivered on his potential and received a just reward for all of the hard work and dedication that he has invested during his ‘indulgence year’ between doing his Leaving Cert and enrolling in the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque presently. For four days, Young MacGrath played brilliantly before losing in the semi-final to the eventual winner Stuart Grehan from Tullamore.

It was a week when the Golf God’s undoubtedly smiled on Stuart Grehan, the winner of a big event in the USA in 2013 when he was on scholarship at East Michigan State University. Grehan also won the Irish Youths in 2012 and this year’s East of Ireland as well as achieving a laudable 5th place in Irish Amateur Open. In the second round he was 2-down with 2 to play against Alan Lowry (Esker Hills and younger brother of Shane’s) but managed to win on the 20th. In the quarterfinal, he chipped into the hole from awkward spots on the second and third holes for an eagle and a birdie to grab an initiative that he never relinquished against Rosslare’s impressive Gary Collins.

Although he represents Limerick GC in GUI events, Lahinch is home ground to MacGrath. He has always played more of his golf there than at Ballyclough. His grandfather and uncles (Power) have been ‘big wigs’ at Lahinch for generations. His mother, Stephanie, is lady captain this year. Considering he was playing ‘Fred Daly Golf” last year that’s massive progress.

On Saturday, I had the rare pleasure of meeting Patrick Collier, winner of The South in 1997, who is now a highly qualified Cardiologist in the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

We had a fascinating, wide-ranging chat. He told me that the USA is ‘teeming’ with plus-4 handicap amateur golfers all with ambitions to turn pro. We agreed that while it is not nice to stamp on any young person’s dreams we wondered about the loss to the game of full-time amateurs with unsustainable pro ambitions. “One can’t but help noticing a different approach by today’s top amateurs. All (bar a few) are on a mission.

Tournament golf everywhere is serious business. Most of the participants are full-time golfers with designs on the pro game,” said Patrick. However, the success rate is tiny. “About 2% - if they are lucky, not very good odds,” according to former Irish Team Captain, Rupert De Lacy Staunton. “One wonders if it is all a bit foolish?” He mused.

Then, I met a disgruntled 20-year-old non-qualifier with pro ambitions who told me he was ‘losing interest in golf’ and thinking of taking a break. He said he may have played too much last year and was ‘losing the head’ too easily when under pressure. This gave me the opportunity to tell him to get back in the saddle as soon as possible and start making his presence felt.

A break at this stage of his career would cost him too much ground. Hitting the ball well is only about one third of it. Sharpness only comes from competing. If you want to be sharp - you have to compete regularly, I told him.

Of course, everyone feels demotivated at times. When one is underperforming it is hard to stomach. You just have to bulldoze your way through it and turn it around somehow - otherwise, you are history. “If you were a touring pro missing cuts it would be a lot more pressure.

Pros who played at St. Andrew’s last week are now in Switzerland or Canada playing away as if last week never happened. No breaks for them. Next week they’ll be somewhere else and the same the week after. Pro golf is a treadmill.

If a pro misses too many cuts and doesn’t maintain his place in the rankings, he loses his playing privileges and is out of a job. When you say you want to be a pro golfer that’s the life that is ahead of you. It’s not for everybody. In fact, it’s probably a lifestyle few would enjoy. It’s frustrating to see an investment in genuine talent going down the drain.” I said - but I do sympathize with how the young man feels.

In spite of last week’s success I do hope that Lahinch GC will have a thorough, objective relook at the ‘South’s’ format. In my view, it is preventing the championship from achieving the high status it deserves. The 36-holes qualifier was a clear improvement over straight match play but I’m not convinced that the new format has gone far enough to attract the top half-a-dozen Irish performers as well as a sufficient number of overseas golfers to make ‘The South’ into what it aspires to be.

The Committee is understandably reluctant to change from its traditional place on the calendar but that is precisely what Geoff Bleakly, father of the former holder Stuart, believes is necessary. Today’s top amateurs are obsessed with World Amateur Golf Ranking points. WAGR is all they think about day and night. I’m by no means certain that WAGR is positive for the overall game but it is there now and it’s not going away.

We would all love to see the best amateurs in Europe coming to Lahinch once a year. It would show us ‘slow learners’ in North Munster how far behind we are lagging by international standards and it might inspire our youth to do something about catching up. Tom O’Driscoll, the Cork-born owner and President of Clementader Golf Club in Paris, says he can ‘guarantee’ half-a-dozen elite French and Italians would come if a 54-holes stroke play element was incorporated. When you consider how the French dominated the British Amateur this year - it would be a huge shot in the arm and an interesting education if they did come.