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Rory McIlroy joins long list of Northern Ireland golfing greats

James Corrigan, golf correspondent of The Independent, wonders why Ulster has managed to produce so many talented players down the years

It has almost become the traditional way to spend Sunday evening in Northern Ireland.

Pop down to the local golf club, sit down with a few pints and watch on the big screen if the boy you once watched scampering up the fairway can beat the world.

And so they gathered at Holywood Golf Club last night as the sun set and their son set out on the road to US Open glory.

Two months before, the Co Down village had performed a ritual, and 10 months before that the denizens of Portrush had done the same.

To think, a country with a population of 1.5m were long odds-on to win back-to-back US Opens.

There are more golf courses in the county of Kent than in Northern Ireland.

“The odds on this happening must be zillions to one,” said David Feherty, another Ulsterman who played in the Ryder Cup and now is a big name in American broadcasting.

“Why has it happened? Beats me.”

Of course, the experience of The Masters was stopping the stout from slipping down too easily in the humble Holywood clubhouse.

But regardless of the result the fact remained that this was an astonishing performance not only from the young man with the curly mop, but also from Northern Ireland.

But then, they have come used to punching above their weight on the fairways. Stretching back to Fred Daly, the Open champion of 1947, there has been a succession of champions, both amateur and professional.

There was the great Amateur champion Max McCready and he was followed by Norman Drew, who became the first player ever to earn Walker Cup and Ryder Cup honours. Leading the way into recent times times came Ronan Rafferty, the Order of Merit champion in 1989, while Feherty's influence as a multiple Tour winner should not be underestimated.

For so long Darren Clarke was the rock of the Europe Ryder Cup team and, on an individual basis, the big chap with the cigar won two WGC titles — beating Tiger Woods in the World Match Play — and scaled the heights to fourth in the world.

Then came McDowell, filling the 63-year void back to Daly and winning last year's US Open at Pebble Beach in thrilling style. And now Rory McIlroy, the 22-year-old with the world at his spikes and his ball on a piece of string. What counts for this plethora of golfing riches?

Apart, from perhaps the “siege mentality” culture, it is wrong to analyse the rise of Northern Irish golf in isolation. In terms of the fairways, the island is unified. The Golf Union of Ireland was the first national golfing union to be established anywhere in the world and oversees men's amateur golf in both the south and north.

As McDowell points out, the Irish celebrations know no boundaries. “The great thing about golf is that it transcends the border,” he said. “So people in Ireland are hugely proud of what we achieve as golfers and the people in Northern Ireland are hugely proud of what we achieve in golfers. They acknowledge the fact we are a very small country.”

Indeed, how could anyone fail to recognise that. Ireland went 60 years and 240 majors without success and now, in one remarkable generation, they have won their fifth major from the last 16. Both McDowell and McIlroy are quick to credit Padraig Harrington's two Opens and one USPGA in two seasons from 2007 as massive inspiration.

Of course, McIlroy's extraordinary talent happens to be so natural, so God-given he could probably have been born in the Antarctic and plotted a path past the penguins to join the elite. What has impressed America so much has been his attitude, the lack of side, the presence of humility. Certainly, this can be traced back to his Northern Ireland roots.

“The worst crime you can probably commit in Northern Ireland circles is to ‘bum' or ‘blow' about yourself, as we would say,” so John Stevenson, McIlroy's former headmaster at Sullivan Upper School said.

“To be pompous, airs and graces, have an overblown sense of your own importance, to take yourself too seriously... and Rory is steeped in that culture.”

Stevenson sees more than a golfer in McIlroy.

“Northern Ireland people need their heroes and certainly needed them in the dark days of the Troubles,” he said. “Somebody who speaks like us, who comes from our place whose only real claim to fame is that we murder each other at regular intervals. Rory has now occupied, probably, that No 1 slot in the hearts and minds of Northern Ireland people, right across all the communities. Rory has cut through all of that.”

Now the clamour will grow for Northern Ireland to be finally recognised again by the Royal & Ancient. Only once has the country hosted the Open Championship — at Royal Port rush — but, with “G-Mac” and “Wee-Mac” holding such lofty reputations within the sport, the ancient body will come under increasing pressure to return its fabled Championship back across the sea.

“That is a lifetime dream,” said McDowell. “I've played with Peter Dawson [the R&A's chief executive] a few times and I've quizzed him if we are ever going back to Portrush.

“He's told me it's not the logistics of hotel and travel, but it's the surface of the course itself, accommodating all the crowds and grandstands. But it would be good to make it happen. It would be great for Northern Ireland.”

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