SINCE we entered a new Millennium, the South of Ireland Golf Championship (established in 1895) has found it increasingly difficult to entice members of the GUI Elite Panel, let alone, highly rated overseas players, to take part. Rory McIlroy, for example, never played in it.
In a bid to make the tournament more attractive to elite players, the SOI Committee has decided to re-introduce a 36-Holes qualifying stroke play event beginning on Wednesday, July 22nd next (instead of the usual Saturday) with 64-players to qualify for matchplay beginning on the Friday and ending on Sunday, July 26th.
The committee claims this ‘innovative’ step was taken after consultation with the GUI but the dogs in the street know any changes to the format of The South is entirely a Lahinch decision. Excuse me for asking but what will be achieved by holding a 36-Holes qualifier? This format was tried before (as recently as 2011) and failed abjectly. What is so innovative about it? Did anybody remember that the vast majority of amateur golfers are at work on Wednesdays and Thursdays?
Lahinch claims it’s the first step in restoring the prestige of the South. From mutterings of discontent I hear reducing the number of entries from 192 to 140 and beginning on Wednesday is not popular with the regular competitors.
The SOI committee continues to miss the point. Amateur golf at the elite level has changed. The South barely rates with the World Amateur Golf Rankings (WAGR). They give it a ‘F.’ The key word is World Amateur Golf Rankings. No recognition or concessions are made for tradition.
A host of Grand Prix tournaments (scratch cups to us) on the Continent are rated more highly. No top Irish player, let alone an overseas one, is likely to play in The South unless supremely confident of winning - a very rash attitude in any match-play competition.
Stuart Bleakley won The South in 2014 but earned fewer points than some of those who missed the ‘cut’ in The Amateur Championship. It’s painful for traditionalists, like me, to hear from sources that it is detrimental to hold onto the match-play format. Nor is it true that the top players avoid The South because of a ‘packed and grueling schedule,’ it’s the lack of WAGR points available. If Lahinch really wants to improve the attractiveness of The South it must find ways to increase its haul of WAGR points substantially.
The GUI has made a genuine effort to help by rearranging its fixture list for 2015. Next year’s Interprovincial Championship has been moved and will take place between 6th/8th July. The Irish Amateur Close has also been moved to a date AFTER the Home Internationals on 12th/14th August at Royal Portrush, which is a shocking ‘result’ for our once premier championship but it could indirectly help The South’s flagging fortunes as ‘the last chance saloon’ to impress selectors prior to the Irish team being picked.
In most of the major amateur competitions overseas, entry is in accordance with World Ranking, not handicap. Irish championships are ranked low because entry is based on handicap. The R & A, EGA and USGA don’t give a hoot about handicaps. They only heed WAGR points. It is clear Ireland is being left behind as a consequence.
In the USA and Europe, as well as GB, regional amateur events (a.k.a. scratch cups) when played over 54-holes of stroke play, or more, and if they attract sufficient ranked players, earn significant WAGR status. One reason why the GUI sends its panelists overseas is because Ireland itself does not have enough tournaments carrying precious WAGR points. The result is collateral damage to Irish golf across the board.
If The South adopted a 54-holes qualifier (call it the SOI Medal) with, say, sixteen going forward for a separate matchplay event - then, and only then, will the best amateurs come rolling into West Clare. I’d like to see a separate, additional pre-qualifier for say 10-places, similar to the West of Ireland, adopted. It would mean a much bigger entry could be accommodated. From the elite player’s point of view, a guaranteed 3-rounds of stroke-play versus the chance of being knocked out in the first round of matchplay is more attractive and viable.
To be brutally honest and I hate saying it, championships need to be all stroke-play. WAGRs and all top golfers accept 72-Holes as THE standard.
It is possible to visualize the day when the Dromoland or Castletroy Scratch Cups or even the Midwest Alliance might become global attractions if there were WAGR points at stake - but only if they went to 54-holes, at least.
Because of Ireland’s devotion to matchplay, Irish golf is being outflanked and left behind. If we want to keep up, we will have to change. The game is global and the stakes are high. Already, The R&A is showing more interest in Brazil and China than in us.
How ironic it is that all of this is happening when a product of Irish golf is the No. 1 player in the world?
Words of the Wise
The amateurs of today are pros; they’re not amateurs. They play non-stop competition. They have video equipment, fitness trainers, dieticians, swing and mental coaches. They are AMNOs, amateur in name only – Tom Watson.