2005: McElhinney stops Scot greenkeeper’s fairy-tale bid

Southport, England

This time David failed to beat Goliath. The fairy tale did not come true, the clouds did not have a silver lining. Experience overcame innocence in the end.

Brian McElhinney’s 5-and-4 victory over John Gallagher in the British Amateur Championship final June 4 at Royal Birkdale put an end to a story that would have captivated the world of golf.

Although only 22, McElhinney is a seasoned Irish international, winner of the 2003 European Amateur, the 2004 Irish Amateur and last year’s Irish Order of Merit. Gallagher seemingly had no chance.

Gallagher, 24, was different than every other player in the field for one main reason: He plays with an unusual grip. His left-hand-below-right grip is not how the purists would advocate playing the game, but Gallagher has been playing that way since he was 11. He has reached a handicap of plus-2, and it nearly won him one of the most revered trophies in amateur golf.

The greenkeeper from Edinburgh is on a two-year sabbatical to see if he can earn a berth on the Scottish international team. After his performance at Royal Birkdale, the Scottish selectors will be hard pressed to leave him out.

Gallagher held off the challenges of two Scottish internationals to make it to the final. He defeated 1997 champion Craig Watson, 1 up, in the fourth round, and then overcame 19-year-old sensation Lloyd Saltman by the same score in the semifinals.

Many had predicted Saltman to go all the way following back-to-back victories at the Brabazon Trophy and St. Andrews Links Trophy, two of Britain’s major amateur titles.

Gallagher’s victory over Saltman had the romantics drooling over the prospects of the unorthodox Scot teeing it up in the British Open at St. Andrews and next year’s Masters, the rewards that accompany winning the British Amateur.

Instead, those honors will go to McElhinney, whose experience paid off in a 36-hole final played in strong winds. The Irish golfer built a sizeable four-hole lead the first 18 holes. Every time Gallagher managed to claw back, he would immediately give it back again on the next hole.

“I was relaxed this morning, but it’s a hell of a game when you are down all the way, and I never really got back at him,” Gallagher said. “I putted well all week but lost it a bit today. It’s been a great week, and it was a great achievement to get to the final.”

Gallagher now awaits a call from the Scottish selectors. McElhinney, meanwhile, can make plans for this year’s British Open and next year’s Masters, as well as a trip to Chicago for the Walker Cup. He is virtually guaranteed a place on the 10-man Great Britain & Ireland team.

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” McElhinney said. “I was very nervous this morning and didn’t sleep well all night, but I play a lot in windy conditions so the wind suited me.”

McElhinney came through the tougher half of the draw to earn the right to play against Gallagher. The Irish player defeated tough English players in Gary Lockerbie in the quarterfinals and 16-year-old Oliver Fisher in the semifinals.

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