Dundalk’s Caolan Rafferty topped the qualifiers in the Connolly’s Audi West of Ireland Championship, but the jury is out on the new format for the opening amateur Major of the season.
The 29-year-old former Walker Cup player had enough in a one-over 72 to top the 54-hole qualifier by four strokes from Roscommon's 19-year old boys' international Thomas Higgins, who shot 73, and Bray's Alan Fahy, who fired a best of the day 68 to make the top 16 with ease on one-over.
While it achieved its aim of a quality first-round draw today - the new format will have no effect on the event’s World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR) rating - many felt three rounds was too much with just 16 to qualify and almost half the field players well out of contention after two rounds.
Of the 132-strong starting field, just 106 teed it up in the final round as 19 withdrew, six retired and another was a no show overnight as Co Sligo's Rosses Point links presented another stern challenge in 20 mph southeast gusts and squally showers.
“100 per cent there should’ve been a cut yesterday because there are a lot of guys playing pointless golf out there today,” said Tralee’s Darren O’Sullivan, who failed to qualify by a shot after a 73 left him on eight-over.
Defending champion Hugh Foley finished eighth on three-over after a 74 and admitted he was playing defensive golf just to hold on to his place in the last 16.
"I'm just relieved to get through," said Foley, who now faces international teammate Marc Boucher from Carton House. "Now that it's matchplay, you can just free up again, but it was difficult to stay in the psychology of not looking at the top 16.
“It was a little bit stressful today, but tomorrow you can be more aggressive. I was almost playing for pars and bogeys the last few holes and trying to avoid a seven or an eight.”
Rafferty believes organisers should stick with the old format of 36 holes of strokeplay with 64 to qualify or switch to 72 holes of strokeplay rather than using a format that falls between the two stools. “Part of me thinks round three is a bit of a waste because it’s a long three days for anybody, especially at the bottom of the leaderboard,” said Rafferty, who plays Roscommon’s Allan Hill, who made a 25 footer at the 18th for birdie to claim 16th place as just two of the five players on seven-over progressed.
Seven players who started the day outside the top-16 moved into the precious spots, including Douglas’ Irish Close and Irish Amateur Open champion Peter O’Keeffe, who shot 70 to make it with a shot to spare in 13th.
Seven of the 10-strong Irish elite squad progressed, but there was also a place for 49-year-old Eddie McCormack from Galway Bay, who carded a brilliant 69 to qualify in sixth place on three-over.
Beaten by Shane Lowry in the semi-finals in 2008 and by Rory Leonard in the 2010 final, McCormack is no fan of the new format.
“I’d rather 36 holes and then 64 in the match play,” said the Cavan native. “You’d want to be really on your game the whole time for 54 holes of strokeplay. It’s not a format built for the working man, and it’s for the elite amateur.”
Qualifiers 210 C Rafferty (Dundalk) 65 73 72 (silver medal)
214 T Higgins (Roscommon) 71 70 73, A Fahy (Bray) 68 78 68
215 L Nolan (Galway) 68 73 74
216 M McClean (Malone) 72 73 71,
E McCormack (Galway Bay) 71 76 69, A Mulholland (Castlerock) 71 72 73,
H Foley (Royal Dublin) 70 72 74
218 M Boucher (Carton House)
71 75 72, R Griffin (Ballybofey & Stranorlar) 71 71 76,
K Egan (Carton House) 69 75 74
219 E Sullivan (Carton House) 73 74 72, P O’Keeffe (Douglas) 72 77 70,
J Hewitt (Tandragee) 71 77 71
220 A Benson (West Lothian) 74 73 73, A Hill (Roscommon) 73 76 71.
Matchplay: first round tee-times
08:00 Caolan Rafferty (Dundalk) v Allan Hill (Roscommon)
08:10 Hugh Foley (Royal Dublin) v Marc Boucher (Carton House)
08:20 Liam Nolan (Galway) v Peter O’Keeffe (Douglas);
08:30 Matthew McClean (Malone) v Eoin Sullivan (Carton House)
08:40 Thomas Higgins (Roscommon) v Andrew Benson (West Lothian);
08:50 Andrew Mulholland (Castlerock) v Ryan Griffin (Ballybofey & Stranorlar)
09:00 Alan Fahy (Bray) v James Hewitt (Tandragee)
09:10 Eddie McCormack (Galway Bay) v Keith Egan (Carton House).