By Peter F. Stevens
“Darren Clarke – the first Northern Irish golfer to win a major in almost four weeks.” The words were those of Graeme McDowell, the gifted Northern Irish golfer who won the 2010 U.S. Open, on Twitter following Clarke’s stunning triumph at the 2011 British Open.
From Rory McIlroy, the 22-year-old Holywood, Co. Down, native who stormed to victory in June at Congressional in one of the most dominating performances in U.S. Open history (all done in the wake of a final-round collapse that cost him the Masters in April), came the jubilant proclamation that Northern Ireland has become the “world capital of golf.”
Hyperbole and national pride from McIlroy and McDowell, to be sure, still, one can’t blame them – they ended a 63-year drought for the six counties whose last and only citizen to win one of golf’s majors was Fred Daly in the 1947 British Open. For all of the golf-mad Emerald Isle, the surge begun by Dubliner Padraig Harrington’s major breakthrough at the 2007 and 2008 British Opens and the 2008 PGA Championship has spread to the North and across the golfing globe. Some have mistakenly written that Harrington was the first Irish player to win a PGA tourney, but in 1922, Paddy O’Hare, of Co. Louth, finished on top at the North South Open, at Pinehurst, an event not only in the line-up of the fledgling PGA circuit, but also one considered among the era’s preeminent professional contests along with the British and US Opens and the PGA in pre-Masters championship days.
Numerous golf observers, including this writer, long believed that Harrington and Clarke had the games to win a major and end Ireland’s post-Daly drought, and even though Harrington fulfilled the Republic’s dream from tee to green, it seemed that the immensely talented Clarke, who had struggled through the ordeal of his wife’s losing battle with cancer, had seen his chance ebb at the age of 42. His steady, even steely performance a few weeks ago at Royal St. George’s in abysmal weather lifted him from the ranks of greatest players never to win a major and, for the moment, made McDowell’s and McIlroy’s boasts of recent Northern Irish golf dominance hard to dismiss.
The rising dominance of Irish, other European, Australian, and Asian players in recent years has become a question that both bedevils and angers American players and officials alike. Nonetheless, facts are stubborn things, as the adage states, and the facts are that McDowell, McIlroy, and Clarke won three of the last six Majors. Two South Africans – Louis Oosthuizen and Charles Schwartzel – and German Martin Kaymer seized the other three. An obvious American retort is that Tiger Woods has been both hurt and buffeted by his personal woes in this time frame. Fair enough, but even with Tiger’s large shadow not there on the final rounds of majors, there’s still a guy named Mickelson, but he has fallen short a number of times.
In an interview with The Telegraph’s Ian Chadband, senior golfing legend Tom Watson mused, “We [the US] are still sitting in the vacuum that Woods created. Somebody who is the next personality, the next star? Well, right now we have a lot of people auditioning for it, a lot of potential but no one who has really come out and paced well ahead of the pack.”
When it comes to the Ryder Cup, Team Europe – with Irish and Northern Irish players in the vanguard – has snagged six of the last eight tourneys, America winning in 2008 but losing a close one in 2010 in Wales. Given the current state of play on the PGA Tour, a 2012 US squad with a struggling or even absent Tiger would have to be the underdog unless Mickelson and company, especially younger players such as Dustin Johnson, can step it up between now and then.
As with all sports, there are historical cycles in golf. In 1994, scribes and fans were voicing similar concerns that America was losing ground in the big tourneys to European, Australian, and other international players. Woods changed all that. At this juncture, however, McDowell and McIlroy can suggest – even half-kiddingly -- that the Emerald Isle does indeed rule the global greens. One can “forgive” the euphoria, for Ireland’s historical climb to the top of the leader board proved a long one.
Despite grumbles by such past European stars as Ian Woosnam and Nick Price that Rory McIlroy’s lackluster performance at this year’s British Open means he has a long way to go before he is a “complete player,” only a fool would bet that he won’t develop a better links-course game. The young man from Holywood and the top of the leaderboard will remain great and good friends for years to come is the safe gamble. That said, the next Tiger, Nicklaus, Palmer, or Watson will emerge from the figurative rough soon enough.