Ryder heroes Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell will play crucial roles at heart of Europe for years to come
It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Northern Ireland folk lamented their lack of world-class golfers.
Yes, there was Darren plodding away and earning a crust. And Ronan Rafferty made a few headlines across the world.
But it seemed that Fred Daly’s achievement in winning the Open Championship would never be eclipsed by a local.
Now, we’re disappointed if an Ulsterman doesn’t win a Major every year. Heavens, even cigar-chomping Clarke did it.
Yes, we’re almost getting blase about the whole thing — and that would be wrong because we should never lose our sense of wonderment and awe at what Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell have achieved over the last four years.
Five Majors between them, and now three Ryder Cups; if anything, we simply don’t laud them enough.
For instance, there can be no doubt that, without the two Ulster stars leading the way, it would have been a very different story on Sunday afternoon at Gleneagles.
‘Wee Mac and G-Mac’ were trusted with the key roles by Paul McGinley and they repaid that faith in spades.
McIlroy produced perhaps his best golf of the year — in a season in which he has won two Majors and a PGA championship, don't forget — to put Rickie Fowler firmly in his place.
McDowell, meanwhile, in his fourth Ryder Cup, used every ounce of his experience to take down Jordan Spieth, producing one of the great Sunday singles comebacks in the process from three down at the turn.
These were momentous performances as first McIlroy, third out in the singles, put up the first European point and the world number one was right there by the 17th green to watch McDowell roll in his putt to take Europe 12-6 ahead, just two and a half points shy of outright victory.
It seems incredible for a country with a population of just 1.8 million that Northern Ireland’s influence on the Ryder Cup should have increased since the team was expanded from Great Britain and Ireland to Europe in an attempt to halt a USA team then as dominant as the Europeans are today.
That was in 1979, primarily in an effort to get Severiano Ballesteros involved in the biennial matches, but it changed the nature of the competition entirely.
Fred Daly was a mainstay of the team from 1947 to 1953 and there were appearances, too, in the Great Britain and Ireland era for Norman Drew in 1959 and Eddie Polland in 1973.
Ronan Rafferty played in the 1989 European team which retained the trophy after a 14-14 draw at the Belfry and David Feherty was on the losing side in the War on the Shore and Kiawah Island two years later when Bernhard Langer infamously missed a putt to retain the trophy on the final green.
It was Darren Clarke who cemented Northern Ireland’s place at the very heart of the European team with his performances from a winning start at Valderrama in 1997, through the pain of Brookline two years later to his sublime and emotional performances in his fifth and final appearance at the K Club in 2006 when he won three matches out of three.
And the Northern Ireland influence is set to continue for years to come. Clarke is the natural and popular choice to skipper the side at Hazeltine in two years’ time and the charismatic Dungannon man is probably the man the Americans, who have a lot of soul-searching to do before selecting a successor to Tom Watson, would least like to see in charge.
Naturally McIlroy — whose display on Sunday has only reinforced his position as by far the best player in the world at the minute — is going to play many, many more and may even eventually eclipse Nick Faldo’s record haul of 25 individual points.
But perhaps it is McDowell who best personifies the true fight and desire it takes to be a real force at the Ryder Cup.
There was real anger in his eyes at the Friday evening press conference as he reacted to Sir Nick Faldo’s remarks about Sergio Garcia in his American television commentary. Clearly the hammering Europe suffered at Valhalla, as the Portrush man made his debut, still hurts.
I interviewed McDowell at Royal Portrush a few days after he had played his way onto the 2008 team and innocently asked what Faldo had said to him on the phone after he had qualified.
“He hasn’t spoken to me yet,” he replied rather awkwardly. It seemed little more than an oversight at the time, but in hindsight was pretty symptomatic of the chaotic way Sir Nick would run things in Kentucky, including having to ask McDowell in the middle of the opening ceremony in front of a television audience of millions which part of Ireland he came from.
McDowell emerged as a star European man despite all that and has real fire in his belly when it comes to taking on the Americans. He was ruthless in seeing off Hunter Mahan to sink the winning putt at Celtic Manor in 2010 and he nursed McIlroy through his first appearance, a role he performed superbly again with French rookie Victor Dubuisson last week.
Both McDowell and McIlroy are themselves potential future European Ryder Cup captains, but hopefully not for some considerable time to come.