Northern Ireland adds new name to glorious parade of champions
Two US Open titles in succession is the latest dizzying success for small country of just 1.8m people, reports James Corrigan
Monday 20 June 2011
It has almost become the traditional way to spend Sunday evening in Northern Ireland. Pop down to the local golf club, have a few pints and watch on the big screen as the boy you once saw scampering up the fairways beats the world.
And so they gathered at Holywood Golf Club last night as the sun set and their son set out off to make history in the US Open. Two months before the suburb of Belfast had performed a similar ritual – alas without the end result – and 10 months before that the denizens of Portrush, 50 miles to the north, had done the same.
To think, a country with a population of 1.8m have won back-to-back US Opens. There are more golf courses in the county of Kent than in Northern Ireland. "The odds on this happening must be zillions to one," said David Feherty, another Ulsterman who played in the Ryder Cup and now is a big name in American broadcasting. "Why has it happened? Beats me."
In truth, Northern Ireland have become accustomed to punching above their weight on the fairways. Stretching back to Fred Daly, the Open champion of 1947, there has been a succession of champions, both amateur and professional.
There was the great Amateur champion, Max McCready, and he was followed by Norman Drew, who became the first player ever to earn Walker Cup and Ryder Cup honours. Leading the way into recent times came Ronan Rafferty, the Order of Merit champion in 1989, while Feherty's influence as a multiple Tour winner should not be underestimated.
For so long Darren Clarke was the rock of the Europe Ryder Cup team and on an individual basis the big chap with the cigar won two WGC titles – beating Tiger Woods in the World Match Play – and scaled the heights to fourth in the world.
Then came Graeme McDowell, filling the 63-year void back to Daly and winning last year's US Open at Pebble Beach in thrilling style. And now Rory McIlroy, the 22-year-old with the world at his spikes and his ball on a piece of string. What counts for this plethora of golfing riches?
Certainly it would be wrong to analyse the rise of Northern Irish golf in isolation. In terms of the fairways, the island is unified. The Golf Union of Ireland was the first national golfing union to be established anywhere in the world and oversees men's amateur golf in both the south and north. As McDowell points out the Irish celebrations will know no boundaries. "The great thing about golf is that it transcends the border," he said. "So people in Ireland are hugely proud of what we achieve as golfers and the people in Northern Ireland are hugely proud of what we achieve in golfers. They acknowledge the fact we are a very small country."
Indeed, how could anyone fail to recognise that. Ireland went 60 years and 240 majors without success and now, in one remarkable generation, they have won five majors from the last 16. Both McDowell and McIlroy are quick to credit Padraig Harrington's two Opens and one USPGA in two seasons from 2007 as massive inspiration. Harrington, himself, deflect the praise.
"A lot of other European countries are sending their amateurs to our big tournaments now because they realise that we consistently produce competitors," he said. "All the competition is right from the age of 18 all the way up, there's a strong competitive golf system in place. We're a tiny country, with tiny number of players, but there's just a lot of competition."
Of course, McIlroy's extraordinary talent happens to be so natural, so God-given, he could probably have been born in the Antarctic and plotted a path past the penguins to join the elite. What has impressed America so much has been his attitude, the lack of side, the presence of humility. Certainly, this can be traced back to his Northern Irish roots. "The worst crime you can probably commit in Northern Ireland circles is to 'bum' or 'blow' about yourself, as we would say," said John Stevenson, McIlroy's former headmaster at Sullivan Upper School. "To be pompous, airs and graces, have an overblown sense of your own importance. Rory is steeped in that culture."
Stevenson sees more than a golfer in McIlroy. "Northern Ireland people need their heroes, and certainly needed them in the dark days of the Troubles," he said. "Somebody who speaks like us, who comes from our place whose only real claim to fame is that we murder each other at regular intervals. Rory has now occupied, probably, that No 1 slot in the hearts and minds of Northern Ireland people, right across all the communities. Rory has cut through all of that."
Now the clamour will grow for Northern Ireland to be finally recognised again by the Royal & Ancient. Only once has the country hosted the Open Championship – at Royal Port rush – but with "G-Mac" and "Wee-Mac" holding such lofty reputations the ancient body will come under increasing pressure to return its fabled Championship back across the sea.
"That is a lifetime dream," said McDowell. "I've played with Peter Dawson [the R&A's chief executive] a few times and I've quizzed him are we ever going back to Portrush. He's told me it's not the logistics of hotel and travel, but it's the surface area of the course itself, accommodating all the crowds and grandstands. But it would to make it happen. It would be great for Northern Ireland."
As was a McIlroy victory. It could only happen in Holywood.
Roll of honour
British and Irish major winners in modern era
* Tony Jacklin – England, 1969, 1970 Open Championship
* Sandy Lyle – Scotland, 1985 Open Championship, 1988 Masters
* Nick Faldo– England, 1987, 1990, 1992 Open Championship 1989, 1990, 1996 Masters
* Ian Woosnam – Wales, 1991 Masters
* Paul Lawrie – Scotland, 1999 Open Championship
* Padraig Harrington – Ireland, 2007, 2008 Open Championship 2008 PGA Championship,
* Graeme McDowell – Northern Ireland, 2010 US Open
Youngest winners in major history
* Tom Morris: 17 years, five months, eight days 1868 Open Championship
* Johnny McDermott: 19 years, 10 months, 14 days 1911 US Open
* Francis Ouimet: 20 years, 4 months, 12 days 1913 US Open
* Gene Sarazen: 20 years, 4 months, 18 days 1922 US Open
* Sarazen: 20 years, 5 months 22 days 1922 PGA Championship
* Tom Creavy: 20 years, 7 months 16 days 1931PGA Championship
Largest winning margins
* 15 strokes: Tiger Woods at the US Open at Pebble Beach, California in 2000
* 13 strokes: Tom Morris at the 1862 Open Championships
* 12 strokes: Woods at the 1997 Masters
* 11 strokes: Willie Smith at the US Open in Baltimore in 1899
Five other memorable majors
With Rory McIlroy having greatness in his grasp for the second time this year, the British and Irish public's interest in golf was higher than ever this weekend. While the Ryder Cup has golf's strongest claim on the sporting audience, every few years a major tournament is sufficiently compelling to force its way into the public consciousness. These often involve British or Irish success, although not exclusively so, but they nearly always require the fiercest examination of nerve and technique across the final 18 holes. Dominance can be exciting, but there is even more thrill in collapses and duels deep into Sunday evenings.
The 18th major of Jack Nicklaus's glittering career was perhaps the most enjoyable. It was 23 years after his first Masters victory, and 24 after his first major triumph at the 1962 US Open. Nicklaus, aged 46, fought through a remarkably strong pack featuring Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman and Bernhard Langer to win on the final afternoon. Having looked far out of contention, Nicklaus shot 65 in the fourth round, with an astonishing score of 30 on the back nine to win his sixth and final Green Jacket.
This was the scene of the most dramatic reversals of position in the final day of a Masters. Nick Faldo won his third Green Jacket and his sixth major championship, overcoming a six-stroke deficit at the start of the final round. Greg Norman had a comfortable lead after three days but his touch deserted him on the final straight. Faldo, in contrast, played with skill and technique, shooting 67 on the fourth round, and beating Norman by five shots. He remains the only Englishman to win at Augusta.
Jean van de Velde's was perhaps the ugliest collapse at the end of a major, and the one that felt the most unpleasantly intrusive to watch. At the final hole of the final round at Carnoustie, the Frenchman needed just a double-bogey six to win the tournament. But he drove wide, then hit the grandstand, then went into a stream, then went into a bunker. He dropped into a four-hole play-off, which he lost to Scot Paul Lawrie. As a result, people remember Van de Velde's implosion ahead of Lawrie's victory.
2000 US Open
Tiger Woods produced the most dominant performance in the history of golf, a status unthreatened until Rory McIlroy's brilliance this weekend. At Pebble Beach, Woods finished a record 15 shots ahead of second-placed Ernie Els. Woods' first round was a six-under 65, which he followed with a 69, a par 71 and a final 67. His 272 was the lowest ever US Open score, and he was first man in its history to finish at double-digits under par. Coming at the age 24, this was the third of Woods' 14 majors.
More than any other opponent, Rory McIlroy has been playing this weekend against the memory of his collapse at Augusta in April. Going into the final round, McIlroy, then aged 21, had a four-shot lead from a four-man chasing pack. To the intense disappointment of the British public, and many in Georgia too, McIlroy allowed his position to escape him on the final day. He triple-bogeyed the 10th and double-bogeyed the 14th as he stumbled to a final round of 80. Seven others had a share of the lead at points on the final day, but it was South African Charl Schwartzel who won it.
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