Now, the Irish are stalking the Masters in Georgia

Messrs. McIlroy, McDowell, Harrington strut ‘major’ stuff

In July 2011, the gifted Northern Irish golfer Graeme McDowell tweeted the following words: “Darren Clarke – the first Northern Irish golfer to win a major in almost four weeks.” McDowell, winner of the 2010 U.S. Open, was lauding Clarke’s stunning triumph at the 2011 British Open, the latest in a run of “Majors magic” by Irish golfers after no linkster from the Emerald Isle had snagged one of the game’s majors since Fred Daly in 1947. The question for those who play and follow the Tour is whether Irish names will continue to appear atop the leaderboard of the Masters, the US Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship

The game’s brightest young gun, Rory McIlroy, the young Holywood, Co. Down, golfer who stormed to victory last in June at Congressional in one of the most dominating performances in US Open history (and in the wake of a final-round collapse that cost him the Masters in April), proclaimed in 2011 that Northern Ireland had become the “world capital of golf.” A year later, as the 2012 majors loom and McIlroy chases the Augusta glory his implosion cost him last April, his victory last month at the Honda Classic – in which he withstood a vintage Tiger Woods’ charge – serves notice that McIlroy is ready to pick up where he left off in 2011. Of course, Tiger’s emphatic win in the Arnold Palmer Invitational over McIlroy’s fellow Ulsterman McDowell last month is stirring rumbles that Woods is back in the hunt against all of the Tour’s stalwarts.
Hyperbole and national pride from McIlroy and McDowell aside, one can’t downplay chances that a man from the Republic or Northern Ireland will contend in all of the majors and perhaps add to the Emerald Isle’s Tour trophy case. For all of the golf-mad Emerald Isle, the surge begun by Dubliner Padraig Harrington’s 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, the event not only on the line-up of the fledgling PGA circuit, but also considered one of the era’s preeminent professional contests along with the British Open, and the US Open in pre-Masters and PGA 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. Either could still nail another major; however, it is McIlroy who has become “the man” in the Irish golf firmament. No one would be surprised if McDowell rises to the top of a major board either, rendering both McDowell’s and McIlroy’s boasts of recent Northern Irish golf dominance hard to dismiss.
The rising superiority 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 with Tiger’s legendary roar resounding at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and drowning out McDowell at the Bay Hill tract, in Orlando, Florida, the upcoming Masters might well provide a showdown between Tiger and one of Ireland’s four major stars. As Irish Central’s Patrick Counihan writes, “Tiger Woods has sent out a Masters warning to Rory McIlroy – after taming his compatriot Graeme McDowell in Florida… The win is the first for Tiger since the controversy surrounding his infidelities and is seen as ominous for McIlroy and his rivals ahead of the return to Augusta in a fortnight.”
Although Woods might well back on track, and no Irish golfer has won the Masters, McIlroy, McDowell, Harrington, and Clarke have shown they all have the stuff in a major way. The luck of the Irish – with a large dollop of skill – could end the island’s drought at Augusta.