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G-Mac’s Saudi victory sets the standard for the Irish challenger on Tour

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Graeme McDowell’s success in Saudi Arabia injects a dose of New Year momentum to Irish golf which bodes well for the rest of 2020.

G-Mac’s performance in the Desert and his return to the winner’s podium for his first European Tour victory in over five years was hailed by everyone who loves the game in this country.

We now look forward to the challenges that Shane Lowry, Rory McIlroy and McDowell can throw down to the best of the world’s elite in regular Tour events and the Majors before Pádraig Harrington leads Europe v the USA in September.

Exciting prospects indeed, and let’s not forget the amateurs. Attending the GUI Champions Dinner last month at which most of the Union’s individual and team champions of 2019 were honoured, including Mallow’s James Sugrue, The Amateur Champion, got me thinking about the big picture in terms of Irish golf.

The overall sense was and is: we’re darn good at this game. Our golfers, professional and amateur, consistently punch way above their weight when compared with the resources and playing numbers in the USA, England, Europe, and Asia.

We could also tip our hat without embarrassment to the notion that when it matters most, Somebody Up There Likes Us. Call it fate, or the traditional ‘luck of the Irish’, but at crucial times in our modern golfing history, something beyond our ken has helped to shatter seemingly impenetrable barriers.

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Before going any further, let’s make something clear: hard work by golfers, their coaches, and officialdom for decades has been the foundation for every Irish success in golf. The old adage that the harder you work, the better you get is a no-brainer.

That said, part of our Celtic heritage is the mystical world of dreams, of tales of past glories that inspire hope for the future, particularly among the young.

For so long, the big golfing dream, one which seemed almost out of reach, was that an Irishman could win a Major Championship.

Fred Daly, all credit to him, forged a new pathway by his victory in the 1946 Open Championship, but the floodgates never opened in the immediate aftermath of the Ulsterman’s triumph. Every year after ’46 our top players, headed by Christy O’Connor Senior, Harry Bradshaw, and Norman Drew, followed by later generations such as Des Smyth, Eamonn Darcy, Ronan Rafferty, Christy O’Connor Junior and Philip Walton turned up in hope rather than expectation of bringing the Claret Jug back to the Emerald Isle.

Some, including the O’Connors, Senior and Junior, and Smyth, gave the Open a right good rattle only to fall short in the final round, but the dream never died despite the setbacks.

Meanwhile, our amateurs ploughed away in the Home Internationals and Europeans with varying degrees of success but somewhere around the mid-to-late Eighties and into the Nineties, the tide began to rise, almost imperceptibly.

Was it luck or fate that gave Darren Clarke a massive talent? How different would our golfing history read if Paul McGinley and Pádraig Harrington had not converted from teenage GAA players to seriously good amateur golfers on the GUI scene?

Up North, the boy McDowell from the Rathmore club had an inherent drive and passion to improve. His friend and clubmate Ricky Elliott, now caddie for four-time Major champion Brooks Koepka, admitted that while he was a decent player, he never matched G-Mac’s appetite for hard work on his golf game.

And, of course, the stars shone brightly down from the heavens when Rory McIlroy first got a golf club in his hand shortly after learning to walk.

Shane Lowry came from a family steeped in GAA. Golf wasn’t even a minority sport among his peers growing up but Shane went his own way.

His passion found satisfaction by creating magic in the small ball game instead of on the football pitch, and how well that worked out for the Clara native.

Another big game-changer came when the administration of men’s and boys’ golf shifted at just the right time.

Seamus Smith came from the newspaper business with the late, lamented Irish Press Group, to take over as General Secretary of the GUI in 1996.

His vision, and that of key Union officers, ushered in a new era of professionalism. National and provincial coaching was upgraded and organised.

The golf boom brought a rise in numbers and in excellent golfing facilities.

New found confidence, ambition and investment abounded at all levels of the game. The Irish Ryder Cup heroics stimulated massive interest in golf, and new heights were reached in 2007 when Pádraig broke the 25 year Irish Open hoodoo and then brought home the Claret Jug for the first time in 60 years.

Wonderful, indeed. But let’s not forget that at Carnoustie on that memorable July Sunday, Harrington got a lucky break that completely changed the course of Irish golfing history. Having, as he would admit, choked his way up the 72nd hole, Harrington got the chance of a four-hole playoff with Sergio Garcia, courtesy mainly of the Spaniard’s golf ball somehow failing to fall into the hole to win the Open in regular play.

I don’t care how many times I see that putt replayed on TV – as it trundles towards the hole, every instinct still tells me that it’s got to slip in via the side of the hole, but somehow, amazingly, gravity, the tilt of the earth on its axis, whatever….it stays above ground.

To this day, Garcia cannot understand how that putt did not drop, and in fairness, neither can I, but Harrington got his lucky break and made the most of his reprieve.

The highs got even higher with the Dubliner’s 2008 Open and US PGA Championship wins – the latter victory breaking new ground with a first Irish Major win on US soil.

G-Mac: 2010 US Open. First Irishman to win the US Open. Darren’s Open in 2011, Rory’s four Majors, and Shane Lowry, the reigning Open Champion, have maintained a strike rate that makes ours a golfing nation that punches way above its weight.

Here’s an interesting statistic: Since World War 2, six Irishmen have won 11 Major titles – Fred Daly, Rory (4), Pádraig (3), Graeme, Darren, and Shane.

During that same period 1946 to 2019, England, with vastly superior playing numbers, has produced the same number of Major champions as our tiny island – Henry Cotton (1948 Open), Max Faulkner (1951 Open), Tony Jacklin (1969 Open, 1970 US Open), Nick Faldo (three Opens, three Masters) Justin Rose (2013 US Open) and Danny Willett (2016 Masters).

Faldo’s six titles and Jacklin’s two put a gloss on the overall English total of 12.

However, if you put us up against our English neighbours since the turn of the Millennium, the Irish win hands down with 10 Majors to the Brexit Boys’ two.

Back on Tour, I love that McDowell has shown that at age 40, he can still win. His Saudi International victory brought tears to his eyes, but they were tears of happiness.

As for the Champions Dinner held in January, the GUI also got ‘lucky’.

They will dissolve as the governing body for Men’s golf later this year to be absorbed into the new Golf Ireland entity, so how good was it that the final Champions Dinner could hail the phenomenal double of Amateur Champion (James Sugrue of Mallow), and the Open Champion (Shane Lowry of Clara).

First time in 70 years that The Amateur was held in the Republic, and we got a home winner. First time in 68 years that The Open was held on the island of Ireland, and we got a home winner at Royal Portrush.

Awesome, simply awesome. A decade ago, nobody could have predicted that The Amateur and The Open would come to our little blob of territory, let alone that our boys would beat the best in the World.

If that’s the luck of the Irish, then we’ll grab it with both hands and praise the golfing gods or whoever is Up There for treating us so kindly. More of the same in 2020, please!

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