The Open: Fred Daly set standard for Rory to follow, and now he can master Augusta
Ulster's first Major winner at Royal Liverpool was not Rory McIlroy, writes
A piece of important golfing memorabilia in the lounge of my home – a Waterford crystal pen set – serves as a constant reminder of the first Irishman to win the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, the late, great Fred Daly.
It was presented to him at Royal Dublin Golf Club by the Links Golfing Society in recognition of his victory in 1947. The day after he died, aged 79, in November 1990 – the year before Rory McIlroy was born – his wife Jean invited me to their top floor apartment in south Belfast and said: "Here, he always wanted you to have this." A genuine and heartfelt gesture from the family of a great friend who returned home on the ferry from Hoylake with a £150 cheque in his top pocket, a thumping hangover – he loved his gin – and his place in sporting history.
By today's standards Fred lived a relatively quiet life. He hated aeroplanes and with the exception of taking the boat to a Ryder Cup match in the United States, he rarely travelled abroad. They play for a Fred Daly trophy every St Patrick's Day at a club near Johannesburg and he lost count of the times he was invited to South Africa. He was once offered many, many dollars to turn up as a special guest for a tournament in Arizona, but it just wasn't for him.
Fred never mentioned his fear of flying. He'd say: "I just can't be bothered."
But he loved Royal Liverpool, even though that club took 40 years before formally acknowledging that Friday afternoon victory with a final score of 293, a single stroke ahead of the runners-up Reg Horne and the US amateur Frank Stranahan. I was with him in 1987 when the then captain, resplendent in a scarlet jacket, and members of the club council got to their feet to announce that he was being awarded honorary life membership. They organised a special dinner. Fred sat there, dumbfounded, as his eyes welled up.
It was a magical moment.
Just as was last night's presentation on the 18th green to a young man with the world at his feet and so much to play for.
Rory McIlroy was already a two-times Major champion, but taking possession of the Claret Jug lifts him to a completely new level. When Darren Clarke won the trophy in 2011 it was almost as if he had been granted a golfing reprieve. Clarke was such a naturally gifted, brilliant player, but on the far side of 40 and with his career seeming to be inexorable decline, he came out of nowhere to win.
I had him backed at 175/1, and also kept faith in Rory's belief that he could go about his business in the same way Fred Daly did at Royal Liverpool all those years ago.
After all the trials and tribulations of a broken romance, this victory ended the lingering doubts about his ability to deliver on the big stage, especially when the pressure is really on. He collapsed spectacularly at The Masters two years ago, but after becoming one of a very few players to lead from start to finish in an Open Championship, he will return to Augusta National next April more confident than at any time he can become the first Irishman to win the green jacket.
McIlroy, Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington are all Major champions, but there is something uniquely special about the Masters.
Rory will win there as well. Of that, there should be no doubt. He has an upcoming legal confrontation with his former management company which is due to be heard in a Dublin courtroom next January, but with a multi-million pound sponsorship deal with Nike, money is no longer an issue in his life. Golf is all that matters.
There were rare flashes of emotion at Hoylake, like when he splashed out of a green side bunker and almost holed out on the final hole. His parents Gerry and Rose, who once invested every last penny in his future, were there for him last night; his mum crying as they embraced in front of packed grandstands. They also deserved the moment, and there will be more to come.
He is brilliant off the tee and wonderful to watch around the greens. He has got himself into trouble with some indiscretions – walking off the course at the Honda Classic last February was one – but he also has a way with words which actually mean something. Few golfers are noted for their profound dialogue, but when he was asked if the R&A got it right when they decided to bring forward Saturday's schedule in a bid to avoid terrible weather conditions which had been forecast, McIlroy replied: "Yes, absolutely. It was the second best decision they've ever made. The first was bringing the Open to Royal Portrush."
And that's where it is likely to be played in 2019 – in many ways the spiritual home of golf in Northern Ireland, not much more than a good three-iron from the house where Fred Daly was born in October 1911.
Thanks for all those memories Fred. And well done Rory.