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Ireland's missing major: McIlroy, McDowell and the golden generation have just one mountain to Master

 

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Rory McIlroy never shirks a chat with the media about his Masters frustrations.

Rory McIlroy never shirks a chat with the media about his Masters frustrations.

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Rory McIlroy never shirks a chat with the media about his Masters frustrations.

Bob Rotella remembers a remarkable comment Pádraig Harrington made to him while walking to the first play-off hole at the 2007 Open Championship in Carnoustie.

"When you see me waving to the gallery, you and I will be the only two who know that I'm not really waving to the gallery," he told Rotella. "I'm holding the Claret Jug to the sky!"

Harrington had double-bogeyed his 72nd hole to be pitched into that play-off against Sergio Garcia, yet was now walking fearlessly to the tee. For even Rotella, the moment felt revelatory. His career as one of the world's most revered golf psychologists has been predicated on the conviction that such moments of destiny can be sabotaged by allowing the mind "slip out of the present and into the future".

But Harrington betrayed not a sliver of uncertainty at that moment and, four holes later, had become the first European winner of a Major in eight years and the first Irishman to hold the Claret Jug since Fred Daly in 1947.

Harrington's win that day changed the face of Irish golf.

One year later, he became the first European since James Braid in 1906 to retain the title and, of course, three weeks after that, ended a 78-year wait for a European victory at the USPGA Championship. Three Major titles in 13 months.

Since those wins, seven other Majors have come Ireland's way, a remarkable statistic bettered in that time-frame only by the United States.

So that Carnoustie success begat those of Graeme McDowell (2010 US Open), Rory McIlroy (2011 US Open, 2012 USPGA, 2014 Open, 2014 USPGA), Darren Clarke (2011 Open) and, most recently, Shane Lowry (2019 Open). Of golf's most treasured titles, only Augusta and that green jacket remains elusive.

But Harrington hadn't just emerged out of some mysterious vacuum.

After he and Paul McGinley won the World Cup at Kiawah Island in '97, he spoke to American journalists of Christy O'Connor Snr's influence on their lives and the interaction they so cherished with the great man in Links Society outings through the winter months.

Nine years before that, Eamonn Darcy, Des Smyth and Ronan Rafferty had combined to win the Dunhill Cup, a feat matched two years later (1990) by the team of David Feherty, Philip Walton and Rafferty.

Harrington had seen too how so many Irish players grasped marquee Ryder Cup moments: Darcy beating Ben Crenshaw at Muirfield in '87 for what US captain Jack Nicklaus would call "the final nail in our coffin"; Christy Jnr's extraordinary two-iron to beat Fred Couples at The Belfry in '89; Philip Walton's vital win against Jay Haas at Oak Hill in '95, a feat that drew 5,000 to Dublin Airport to see the Cup arrive via Concorde (just four years before Walton would lose his playing card); McGinley's putt for the crucial half against Jim Furyk at The Belfry in '02.

Harrington himself was on that '02 team, hammering Mark Calcavecchia 5&4 in those Sunday singles.

Yet, it was his breakthrough Major win that became a tipping point.

By then, he'd begun hitching Rotella's insight to work on whatever swing gremlins were identifiable to the knowledgeable eye of Bob Torrance. Harrington was relentless in pursuit of answers or, as he still puts it, "the secret of golf".

McDowell's path to glory at Pebble Beach in 2010 found a different arc, the Portrush native abandoning a degree course in mechanical engineering at Queen's University to take up a golf scholarship at the University of Alabama.

It was college golf that gave him the desire for a pro career, McDowell taking the plunge in '02 and winning the Scandinavian Masters with only his fourth start on the European Tour.

Like McIlroy, he would cite Clarke who - as a Dungannon teenager - worked behind the bar of "the most bombed clubhouse in Northern Ireland" - as his inspiration. Clarke who famously defeated Tiger Woods 4&3 in the 2000 final of the World Match Play Championship at La Costa, winning a $1,000,000 first prize.

How extraordinary that these three men, who grew up within an hour's drive of one another, would all win Majors in a little over 12 months.

Rotella was, reputedly, a key figure for Clarke at Royal St George's too, encouraging an often volatile player to play with "a very quiet mind".

So, between July '07 and August '14, Irish golfers won nine Majors. Nine out of a possible 28 essentially. A strike-rate just over 32 per cent. Staggering.

Yet, that six-year gap to world No 1 McIlroy's last Major preoccupies us today and would - in different circumstances - most likely have been energising fevered debate right now in Augusta, Georgia.

For McIlroy, the early part of this week should have been the equivalent of sitting on Jennifer Melfi's couch then. Dr Melfi: "Do you want to tell me what you're thinking?" Tony Soprano: "Believe me you don't want to know. You want to know what I'm thinkin'? Seriously? I'm thinking I'd like to take a brick and smash your f***ing face into a f***ing hamburger!"

Except that's not how Rory rolls, of course. If anything, he relishes the narrowness of Masters-week focus, the resilient drumbeat of questions echoing down from one year to the next. Questions about that career Grand Slam, about joining those gods of the game - Sarazen, Hogan, Nicklaus, Player and Woods.

McIlroy dials into that conversation more enthusiastically than sometimes seems rational.

His Tuesday press conference before last year's Masters duly took media to precisely where we wanted to be taken. Rory arrived as pre-tournament favourite - having posted seven top-10 finishes in his previous eight events, including a victory at Sawgrass - to tell us of his ball-juggling, his mind-training, the self-help books he was reading.

He opened the blinds too on a relationship with Dr Clayton Skaggs, the mysterious figure observed next to him on the driving-range. He used expressions like "I am not my score, I am not my results", expressions I suggested - at the time - sounded like "some kind of invoiced line from a psychologist's manual".

And he then endured his worst Masters since the 2011 Sunday meltdown, leaking 14 bogeys in his opening three rounds.

But the golf media loves McIlroy for good reason. He engages with them. He stretches and develops answers. He takes journalists beyond a thumbnail understanding of this life he lives, beyond the hollow façade favoured by so many peers, the trotting out of tired anecdote and easy cliché. McIlroy is interesting and open-minded in what can seem a self-absorbed, cataract-clouded world.

He carries it in his body-language.

Earlier this year, when interviewed by Paul Kimmage for the Sunday Independent, he mentioned how he'd taken to writing down thoughts in a journal. So Kimmage brought him back to Portush last July and that missed 'cut' at his 'home' Open.

Kimmage: "Stay with Sunday and the flight back from Portrush. You said you wrote about 10 pages in your journal?"

McIlroy: "Yeah."

Kimmage: "What did you write?"

McIlroy: "I'll go and get it…"

Who does that? What other world No 1, in an authentically global game, slips away to get their notes so that they might answer a journalist's question fully?

Rory is the most gifted of Ireland's modern Major winners. A natural superstar. Someone Oli Fisher - the first player in European Tour history to shoot 59 - likens to snooker player Ronnie O'Sullivan in his possession of "a rare eye for seeing a shot and being able to hit the ball straight down that line."

Who the 2018 Ryder Cup captain, Thomas Bjorn, describes as "the only guy I would pay to watch".

Lowry often recalls nine holes of practice played with McIlroy on the Wednesday of the 2011 US Open at Congressional and coming away "feeling like a 10-handicapper" such was the quality of the soon-to-be-crowned champion's play.

The two came to know one another from Boys' international weekends at Carton House spent under the tutelage of Neil Manchip. McIlroy always looked like someone destined for superstardom, for a life spent in the drench of celebrity.

At Portrush, his scorecard from the day he shot a course-record 61 is immortalised behind glass. A score shot at just 16.

Harrington never had that purity to his talent. He found the game tougher to negotiate with, the edge to his play coming from an insatiable appetite for self-examining. He has always been deep in his own world, yet resolutely, defiantly open too.

In Michael Calvin's 'Mind Game - The Secrets of Golf's Winners', Harrington recalls missing out on the Irish Youths title at Dundalk as an 18-year-old when a two-stroke lead was relinquished with three closing bogeys. The word "choker" was used within earshot afterwards, reducing him to tears.

That, he says, was the moment he realised his need for a sports psychologist.

As a professional, he would win his first European Tour title in '96, yet eventually became accustomed to a media fixation on his accumulation of 29 runner-up finishes. He tells Calvin: "People wanted to pigeonhole me into a certain category. The media assumed it was due to something similar (to Dundalk). There were a few clusters, but in fact there were half a dozen categories.

"Some of them, I lost through being ahead and relaxing. Some I lost to hitting bad shots under pressure. Some I shot a great round to finish second. In others, somebody holed a putt to beat me and I could do nothing about it.

"All 29 second places were learning experiences. You understand how to read a situation and that's the one thing I can do really well now, coming down the stretch. I can understand what the other players are doing, how they are feeling, what's likely to happen, who is the threat.

"What do I have to do? Do I need to push on or is that guy going to come back to me?"

Hindsight suggests that Harrington's win at Carnoustie in '07 was something slowly brewing. He'd been in a winning position in the US Open at Winged Foot the year before and became only the second player to beat Tiger Woods in a play-off (after Billy Mayfair at the '98 Nissan Open) when winning the '06 Dunlop Phoenix in Japan.

In April '07, he'd finished joint seventh at Augusta, just two shots behind the winner Zach Johnson, on a weekend McIlroy lost a West of Ireland quarter-final to Paul Cutler at Rosses Point.

Rory was already, by then, world No 2-ranked amateur and would, of course, secure the coveted silver medal at that year's Open.

Two years after Carnoustie, Lowry became only the third amateur to win a European Tour event, taking the Irish Open at Baltray. Harrington, who missed the cut despite shooting what he considered "a great score" on the Friday, was driving home when he heard that an amateur had been seven shots better.

His reaction?

"He'll blow up. Amateurs always blow up."

But Lowry didn't. McIlroy, his former amateur partner, was waiting greenside with a bottle of champagne as the Clara man edged out England's Robert Rock in a rain-soaked play-off. If Rock had the consolation of a winner's cheque for half a million euro, the golf world had eyes only for one European that week.

More than a decade later, Lowry would have savoured the challenge of Augusta this week as Open champion, just as Mallow's James Sugrue would as champion amateur. And Harrington would have been there in his capacity as Europe's Ryder Cup captain, the third Irishman in that role from the last four renewals.

He is the godfather of this story, the one who changed Ireland's relationship with golf Majors. A nerd of the game in many ways, or "a little bit of a nutty professor" as Bjorn affectionately puts it.

Rotella, after all, commits two entire chapters of his book 'Your 15th Club - The Inner Secret to Great Golf' to their relationship, calling one of them 'What I learned from Pádraig Harrington'.

Even for him, even for one of the most revered minds in the game, there has always been more to gain from a conversation with Pádraig Harrington than to give.

"He'll tell me what he thinks he needs to do to get better," wrote Rotella in 2008. "He's usually right. My role becomes nodding, patting him on the back and saying, 'Go get 'em!"

Which Harrington duly did.

Everything but a green jacket - Ireland's

1947: Fred Daly - The Open at Hoylake

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Where it all began for Irishmen in The Open: Fred Daly was the first ever Irish winner of the Open Championship. Born in - where else - Portrush, Daly went on to be the professional at Lurgan and Balmoral Golf Clubs. It was while at Balmoral that he ventured into Championship golf and become the first Irishman to win the Irish Open in 1946 and just a year later repeated the feat in the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool.

Where it all began for Irishmen in The Open: Fred Daly was the first ever Irish winner of the Open Championship. Born in - where else - Portrush, Daly went on to be the professional at Lurgan and Balmoral Golf Clubs. It was while at Balmoral that he ventured into Championship golf and become the first Irishman to win the Irish Open in 1946 and just a year later repeated the feat in the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool.

Where it all began for Irishmen in The Open: Fred Daly was the first ever Irish winner of the Open Championship. Born in - where else - Portrush, Daly went on to be the professional at Lurgan and Balmoral Golf Clubs. It was while at Balmoral that he ventured into Championship golf and become the first Irishman to win the Irish Open in 1946 and just a year later repeated the feat in the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool.

 

For 60 years, this was all we had to cling to. Belfast man Fred Daly won at Royal Liverpool by a stroke, beating Briton Reg Home and wealthy American Frank Stranahan, whose family owned the Champion Spark Plug company. Such were the different times that Daly had to celebrate his victory in the Artisan's Hut at the course - being a professional he was not allowed in the clubhouse!

2007: Pádraig Harrington - The Open at Carnoustie

Harrington held his nerve in a nail-biting play-off against Sergio Garcia to finally nail the Major championship that his talent deserved. Harrington ought to have won the Open in 'normal time', but he put a ball in the Barry Burn at the 18th, before showing wonderful mental resolve to prevail over the four extra holes.

2008: Pádraig Harrington - The Open at Royal Birkdale

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Padraig Harrington celebrates his first Open success

Padraig Harrington celebrates his first Open success

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Padraig Harrington celebrates his first Open success

 

The Dubliner's fighting spirit came out here. Harrington recovered from bogeys at 7, 8 and 9 on the last day, to play the back nine in four-under par, including an eagle at the 17th. It was enough for a four-shot win over England's Ian Poulter after Aussie veteran Greg Norman had thrilled the crowds for the first three rounds.

2008: Pádraig Harrington - USPGA at Oakland Hills

The famed Harrington stare came out in Detroit as he played brilliantly, shooting four birdies on the back nine of a tough course in the final round to win this Major, with Garcia yet again the bridesmaid to the Irishman. The two Major wins in the same season saw Harrington voted PGA Tour Player of the Year.

2010: Graeme McDowell - US Open at Pebble Beach

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Major joy: Graeme McDowell with US Open trophy in 2010

Major joy: Graeme McDowell with US Open trophy in 2010

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Major joy: Graeme McDowell with US Open trophy in 2010

 

On one of the few American lay-outs that resembles a links course, the Portrush boy did the business. McDowell parred the famed closing par five alongside the Pacific Ocean to win by a shot. You'll do well to name the runner-up - Gregory Havret of France.

2011: Rory McIlroy - US Open at Congressional

Two months after dominating the Masters for 54 holes, before blowing during his final round, McIlroy came out and mastered this Major in magnificent style. He pummelled the field to win by eight shots with the unheard of US Open final score of 16-under par.

2011:  Darren Clarke - The Open at Royal St George's

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Darren's sons Conor and Tyrone were arguably his happiest fans at his homecoming at Royal Portrush.

Darren's sons Conor and Tyrone were arguably his happiest fans at his homecoming at Royal Portrush.

©INPHO/Presseye/Darren Kidd

Darren's sons Conor and Tyrone were arguably his happiest fans at his homecoming at Royal Portrush.

 

It was the big man's only Major and redemption for Clarke who had let slip a great opportunity to win the Claret Jug at Troon in 1997. Clarke won by two shots from Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson amid emotional scenes on the last green - five years after the death of his wife Heather.

2012: Rory McIlroy - USPGA at Kiawah Island

Rory only won this Major by a mere eight shots from David Lynn. He pounded his opponents, going 67/66 on the weekend. Nobody got remotely close once the weekend started - as he hit his rivals with birdie after birdie.

2014: Rory McIlroy - The Open at Hoylake

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Rory McIlroy Golf - The current world number one and a FOUR-time Major championship winner, Rory McIlroy is a global superstar. He won the US Open at the age of just 22 in 2011, and in 2012 triumphed at the US PGA Championship. This year the Holywood hero has won the Open and US PGA. What a talent. Right now, Rory's one of the best sportsmen on the planet.

Rory McIlroy Golf - The current world number one and a FOUR-time Major championship winner, Rory McIlroy is a global superstar. He won the US Open at the age of just 22 in 2011, and in 2012 triumphed at the US PGA Championship. This year the Holywood hero has won the Open and US PGA. What a talent. Right now, Rory's one of the best sportsmen on the planet.

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Rory McIlroy Golf - The current world number one and a FOUR-time Major championship winner, Rory McIlroy is a global superstar. He won the US Open at the age of just 22 in 2011, and in 2012 triumphed at the US PGA Championship. This year the Holywood hero has won the Open and US PGA. What a talent. Right now, Rory's one of the best sportsmen on the planet.

 

Once heard musing that he'd never win the Open because of his naturally high ball flight, McIlroy made a mockery of his own thought by thrashing his field. This was a wire-to-wire triumph with a 66 on the first day putting him ahead and he never faltered. Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia, yet again, were joint second.

2014: Rory McIlroy - USPGA at Valhalla

With darkness falling in Kentucky, McIlroy shone, emerging from a packed leaderboard to win his second Major in a month. He beat Phil Mickelson by a single shot with Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson another one back. McIlroy was on top of the world, yet it remains the last time McIlroy won a big one.

2019: Shane Lowry - The Open at Royal Portrush

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Shane Lowry holds the Claret Jug with wife Wendy and daughter Iris

Shane Lowry holds the Claret Jug with wife Wendy and daughter Iris

Shane Lowry holds the Claret Jug with wife Wendy and daughter Iris

 

A Major to remember. The pride of Clara ventured north, for the first Major in Ireland in 68 years, and won it in magnificent style. With the lead on the first tee starting the last round, Lowry never faltered and won from the front, superbly, by six shots.

- Compiled by John Brennan

Belfast Telegraph