Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

McDowell, McIlroy and Clarke have made us so proud

SANDWICH, ENGLAND - JULY 17: Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland celebrates victory on the 18th green during the final round of The 140th Open Championship at Royal St George's on July 17, 2011 in Sandwich, England. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Michael Hoey and Gareth Maybin, it's over to you. All the other Northern Ireland golfers on tour are winning major championships, so surely it's your turn now boys.

As Michael, from Belfast, and Ballyclare man Gareth — both fine players — would be the first to point out, it's not quite as simple as that.

The thing is, though, where Ulster golf is concerned at present, we are starting to think that just about anything is possible.

That's how the magnificent efforts of Darren, Rory and G-Mac have made us feel.

In the last six majors, three times the winner has come from our wee country.

That's a 50% success rate. Unbelievable!

To put that remarkable achievement in perspective 1.75 million people live in Northern Ireland amongst a world population approaching SEVEN BILLION.

Golf, unlike many sports, is a truly global game, so each time you tee up at the majors you are taking on the best that this planet can offer.

Talk about beating the odds.

US Open winner Rory McIlroy got it right when he declared after Darren Clarke's famous Open victory that Northern Ireland was the golfing capital of the world.

We have Darren, Rory and Graeme McDowell, who claimed the US Open last year, to thank for that.

Previously the only Ulster major champion was the late, great Fred Daly, who ruled supreme at The Open in 1947.

So, what's the secret behind this incredible recent success?

Some suggest a key role has been played by the quality of the golf courses here, such as Royal County Down and Royal Portrush. Agreed, they help, but the real reason why we have suddenly become a major force in the sport is down to Clarke (42), McDowell (31) and McIlroy (22) themselves — and the immense determination and sublime skill they've shown to land the biggest titles around.

Think about McDowell's clever course management and shot-making prowess, combined with nerves of steel at Pebble Beach, with Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Tiger Woods on his tail.

Then consider how the exciting McIlroy destroyed the field with his bewitching swing and magical touch on the greens at Congressional to coast home in such scintillating fashion.

And at Royal St George's, there was Clarke, prevailing through the wind and rain with some of the most controlled and canny golf you could ever wish to see.

He put himself in contention in the opening two rounds with solid and, on occasions, spectacular golf, before turning it on tee to green on Saturday with a breathtaking display of ball striking. When the pressure was intense on a thrilling Sunday afternoon, his putting, often a weakness, stood up to a severe test.

These three friends, whose names are now as ingrained in our heads as much as Best, Law and Charlton, possess glorious natural talent, but we shouldn't forget the extremely hard work they've put in in order to compete and win at the highest level.

And that includes Darren, who while knowing how to live life to the full, spent long hours on the Portrush links to perfect his preparation for Sandwich.

Boy, did all that work pay off, just as it did for Graeme and Rory in the States.

What they have done for Northern Ireland is immeasurable.

There's the positive publicity generated all around the world and goodness knows we need it after decades of negativity, added to by recent reminders of dark days from the past.

There's a new found fascination from golfers everywhere, wondering exactly what's so special about our wee country. Hopefully our tourist board can take advantage of this interest and entice fairway-loving visitors (America's a massive market for that) to travel here and spend money, bringing much needed revenue and jobs to the province.

There's also the fact that with the trio's daring deeds, the youngsters of Northern Ireland have felt inspired. Take a look around golf courses these days and you'll see more kids than ever before, including Darren's own boys Tyrone and Conor.

Perhaps best of all, Darren, Graeme and Rory have put smiles on our faces, a spring in our step and a feeling of genuine pride in the little place we call home.

They've provided a major boost for everyone in Northern Ireland, even those who wouldn't know a seven iron from a three wood.

These guys aren't just sporting heroes – they are national heroes.

Now, I wonder which one of them will win the US PGA Championship next month.

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