In recent years the South of Ireland championship has suffered because of the changing nature of amateur golf. It’s important to remember that most tournaments have ups and downs in their fortunes. The Open Championship itself has had peaks and troughs. So the ‘South’ is likely to bounce back in no time. Not only is it the oldest regional championship in Ireland, it is one of the oldest amateur tournaments in the world.
Over the past 120 years the ‘South’ has been competed for on 113 occasions, always at Lahinch. This year’s event, on 22-26 July, will be the 114th staging. In its first two decades it regularly attracted substantial numbers of competitors from England and Scotland. The War of Independence put paid to that level of overseas participation, but the championship soon recovered and went through a long period of greatness. John Burke’s dominance threatened its competitive edge to such an extent that he was encouraged not to take part for a while. Joe Carr was not a regular competitor, yet he won the ‘South’ three times. In more recent decades it was an essential stage on the domestic amateur calendar and the names Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley and Graeme McDowell were inscribed on the cup, while Padraig Harrington was twice beaten finalist.
Only a handful of amateur tournaments pre-date the South of Ireland. It was first held on Thursday 19 September 1895, the week after the Irish Open Amateur, and its closeness to that event soon attracted cross-channel competitors. The first staging of the ‘South’ was ‘played for by holes’, with George Browning beating M.W. Gavin in the final by 9/8. Most reference books list the wrong runners-up for that inaugural year and for 1897. On the latter occasion Fred Ballingall of Scotland recorded the first foreign win. It has been said that he was as young as 14 but in fact he was aged 17 years and 185 days. Nonetheless he remains the youngest ever winner.
Fred Ballingall retained the title the following year. In the championship’s history there have been only four other winners under the age of 20. Cian McNamara was the second youngest in 2004 (18 years & 30 days). Mark Campbell was the youngest winner in the twentieth century (aged 19 in 1999). Simon Ward was also 19 on his first win in 2006, while the current holder Stuart Bleakley was 19 when he won last July.
Over the first nineteen years of the ‘South’, preceding the Great War, there were only five Irish wins. The most memorable of those was in 1911, when Lionel Munn beat J.S. Kennedy of Scotland. Its significance was that in 1911 there were only three amateur championships in Ireland – the Irish Amateur Open, the Irish Close and the ‘South’ – and Munn made a clean sweep of all three.
The man whose name is synonymous with the ‘South’ is John Burke, a local who only started playing championship golf in his late 20s. He won on his first attempt in 1928 and went on to take the titles a further ten times, including four in a row (1928-31) and six in a row (1941-46). He wasn’t a one track pony, either, as he won the Irish Amateur Open once, the Irish Close (8 times) and the ‘West’ (6 times) as well as making one Walker Cup appearance.
A combination of reasons brought on the recent decline in the fortunes of the ‘South’. Firstly, apparently pressured by the U.S. collegiate calendar, the Home Internationals were brought into August from their traditional September date. The Interprovincial matches being played just before the ‘South’ and the Irish team being selected in advance of it gave no encouragement to team hopefuls to compete in the oldest regional championship.
Another factor was the advent of the R&A’s World Amateur Golf Ranking [WAGR]. The ‘South’ retained the traditional format of amateur golf, being an entirely match play event up to last year. Tradition is under attack from a system that favours stroke play qualifying and encourages top players to chase points in order to gain team selection and prepare a CV for potential sponsors in the professional game. The WAGR does not award points to an event based on its traditional prestige but instead based on how many high-ranking point-accumulators it attracts. If a venerable match play event has to compete with a points-rich stroke tournament it loses out and the spiral gains momentum each year.
In 2014 ‘South’ was rated in the WAGR way down in category F, meaning that it had minimal points on offer. By comparison, the ‘East’, ‘North’ and ‘West’ were all rated in category D or higher. It should not be thought that recent winners of the South of Ireland were unworthy. Their victories were hard won against fields with in-depth talent. The fact that high profile players stayed away meant only that WAGR points went down but the WAGR is a questionable barometer of excellence.
Thankfully Lahinch is fighting back. This year’s event takes place a few days earlier than normal and it begins with a 36-hole qualifying competition. With less competition on the calendar it may attract more high profile contestants from Ireland and indeed overseas. For the record, the last foreign win was by England’s Geoff Roberts in 1959. The last overseas finalist was Philip Johns of Australia in 1991.
[First published in the Irish Clubhouse, Summer, 2015]
I'm a genealogist by profession, with credentials from AGI. I also dabble in local history and the history of Irish golfers, and I'm always writing something!