This country has produced many of the game’s finest but for reasons not always easy to fathom, their record at the Irish Open is a long way short of what might have been expected.
Such a contention may sound difficult to understand for those who happily recall Pádraig Harrington’s victory at Adare Manor in 2007 and Shane Lowry’s triumph while still an amateur at Baltray in 2009. Two titles in three years most definitely made it a golden period for our players but before that we had to go back 25 years to John O’Leary at Portmarnock in 1982 for a previous success.
The Irish Open Championship was founded by the GUI in 1927 and from the time George Duncan defied appalling conditions at Portmarnock that year until World War Two called a halt, it was dominated by a succession of Englishmen. The effects of the hostilities may have had a negative effect on the cross-channel contingent and helped Fred Daly in 1946 and Harry Bradshaw a year later and again in 1949 to keep the title at home but that was the extent of Irish successes before the GUI could no longer funds the championship in 1953.
It duly went into abeyance for 22 years until Pat Heneghan, the PR supremo at PJ Carroll, came up with a brilliant plan to make the event what it is today. Heneghan discovered that the Irish Open title rights had been ceded to the PGA. “You have something I want,” he informed PGA chief executive John Jacobs. Within a short space of time, the Carrolls International gave way to a reconstituted Irish Open revived at Woodbrook in 1975.
Christy O’Connor Junior was crowned champion, a distinction that eluded his even more distinguished uncle, Christy Senior. Tom Watson, who captured the first of five British Open Championships that year, took part and advised Heneghan that until the event moved to one of the country’s great links, it would never command overseas respect and support.
Heneghan persuaded the Carroll family to release the purse strings further and lure a succession of leading Americans to Ireland. The move to Portmarnock, widely regarded as the spiritual home of the event, was made in 1976 when Ben Crenshaw triumphed and it was either Portmarnock or Royal Dublin for the next 15 years.
It helped, too, that Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer were at the zenith of their careers and each claimed the title on three occasions. Two other multiple major champions, Ian Woosnam and Jose-Maria Olazabal engraved their names on the trophy and even when the championship went back inland, if you like, to Killarney in 1991, the long list of illustrious winners was maintained.
Nick Faldo enjoyed a hat-trick of victories in Killarney and Mount Juliet while Colin Montgomerie, Sergio Garcia, Michael Campbell and, of course, Harrington also won as the championship toured the country’s finest courses. Some names hardly ring a bell, like David Carter, Patrik Sjoland, Soren Hansen and Richard Finch. Much the same could probably be said of current holder, Jamie Donaldson, although he turned in a superb performance at Portrush last June.
So, we are left today with just six Irish champions, Fred Daly, Harry Bradshaw, Christy O’Connor Junior, John O’Leary, Pádraig Harrington and Shane Lowry. The players annually claim they are put under greater pressure on the week of an Irish Open more than any other event because of the impositions on their time by media, demanding sponsors, adoring public and so on. But that applies everywhere else as well. It will be fascinating to see if Rory, G-Mac, Padraig, Darren, Shane or, just maybe, one of the lesser lights, is capable of setting the balance right at Carton this week.
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