Managing the Major burden

Dining out on one Major win for 60 years didn’t stop Irish golfers or Irish golf writers from attending the British Open and a host of other Majors from Fred Daly’s win in 1947 until the great messiah — Pádraig Harrington — performed his first miracle at Carnoustie in 2007.

Fred Daly’s 1947 Open victory proved that a man born on the island of Ireland really could lay his hands on a major title but when Harrington ended that 60-year drought six years ago, little did we know that Irish golf would carry off another six Major titles over the following five years.

Not too long ago, an Irish golfer was asked at the Open how he well was playing.

“Great,” he told a scribe. “I’m hitting it really well. Feeling good. Really good.”

“So you feel you can win?” enquired the writer.

“Ah well,” replied the player, casting his eyes up and down the range at the great figures of the day. “Sure, they’re all here.”

How things have changed in the course of a few decades. Irish newspapers now send a full complement of writers to the four Majors and several radio stations regularly cover the Open and other Majors where Irish golfers turn up knowing they can win if they play their best stuff. Having four active Majors winners — and until recently the world number one in Rory McIlroy — has spiked huge interest in Irish golf. No wonder fans are so disappointed with the Irish performances in the Majors this year.

Who would have thought at the start of the season that the best Irish performances would come from 40-somethings Harrington and Darren Clarke?

While Harrington was the top Irishman at the US Open, Clarke matched his share of 21st place at Muirfield on Sunday.

As for 2010 US Open champion Graeme McDowell, this year has been one of utter frustration in the big events.

Last season he had the best performance to par by any player in the four majors — 12th in the Masters, second in the US Open, fifth in The Open and tied 11th at the US PGA.

Yet 2013 has been an annus horribilis for the 33-year-old in the big ones and despite winning three regular events already this term, McDowell’s share of 58th at Muirfield did little to brighten his mood after missing the cut in both the Masters and the US Open.

Yet when analysing the difficulty of following up a Major win, he pointed to former world number one and Open champion David Duval as a salutary lesson in the dangers of changing what got you to the top in the first place.

“I think in this game at the high level, it’s tempting not to want to try to get better and better all the time,” McDowell said. “And with that can be pitfalls there, you know, by trying to change things. We’ve seen great players come and go, and great players try to change things. Speaking to David Duval on the range, he’s trying to get back to swinging it way he was in the late ’90s or early 2000s.

“He swung a bit like me and he wanted to come watch me hit balls, because he wanted to get himself back to where he was. It really resonated with me because you hear a guy like that, who was the number one player in the world, and won The Open Championship in great style at Lytham, the guy was awesome.

“In an attempt to try to get better, he made himself worse. It’s a funny old game. It’s a hard game. And you’ve got to really just believe and stick to the things that have got you there in the first place.”

McDowell has not made too many major chances since his win at Pebble Beach, and neither has Clarke, who appears to get as frustrated as ever with his game since climbing Olympus. However, the well-documented struggles of Harrington and McIlroy in recent times can be traced to major changes, both technical and mental.

Harrington claims he has always changed and continued to do so after his wins at Carnoustie, Royal Birkdale and Oakland Hills.

Yet he freely admits the real problems are all between the ears.

“You only have to look at someone who has won one or two or whatever, it brings a burden to their game,” he said. “To be honest, I think Graeme is one of the few guys who has become a better player since he won a Major. Most guys, it is a burden to carry and it’s a struggle, that’s why you have so many one-time Major winners.”

McIlroy is a multiple Major winner and yet he’s struggled as he’s opted for the brand over the game for now — worrying more about how he’s impressing Nike and Tiger Woods since he signed that mega deal, changed all his clubs and become the other half of Wozzilroy.

If he wants to be a Tiger, a Phil or an Ernie, a household name in a sport full of beige nobodies chasing cheques, he has work to do. Yet he lacks the experience to realise that he’s an entertainer, a star with responsibilities to say and do the right thing.

In an entertaining piece for yesterday, US writer John Garrity explained why Mickelson earned his reputation as a “phoney”. It is the interpretation his good manners, the acceptable side of insincerity, that is misconstrued by his critics.

Mickelson has understood from an early age what it meant to be an entertainer in the Arnold Palmer mode — which is something that McIlroy forgets when he mopes around the course searching for his game in his shoe laces.

“A golfer is an entertainer, much like an actor,” Mickelson told Garrity over lunch, having just won the Tucson Open as an amateur in 1991. “People pay money to go out and watch you play, and I don’t think they pay just to watch you hit a drive down the middle, hit a shot on the green and two-putt. That’s why Lee Trevino and Fuzzy Zoeller are so popular. They are entertainers as well as golfers.”

Clarke, Harrington, McDowell and McIlroy are there to entertain us. Doing it with a smile on their faces is the challenge, especially in Majors.

The biggest disappointed for an Irish golf fan should not be McIlroy’s play but the efforts he’s made to entertain us.

So far this year, they’ve been a Major disappointment.

Open crowds show why R&A must consider Portrush option

Never let it be said that crowd size is an impediment to Royal Portrush hosting The Open again.

The R&A came up with a novel excuse to justify a 12% drop in the gate at Muirfield from 160,595 in 2002 to 142,036 this year — the weather was just too good.

“We believe the extremely warm weather put off some of our pay at the gate customers,” an R&A statement ran. “That is perhaps why, unusually, we had a higher attendance on Sunday in cooler weather [29,247] than we did onFriday [29,144], which is normally the busiest day.

“The blend of a British winner of the Tour de France and Ashes cricket on television over the last few days may also have had an impact.”

There was no mention of the exorbitant ticket prices which were £260 (€300) for a season or £75 (€87) for an adult daily pass on tournament days.

What is interesting is that the 2012 Irish Open at Royal Portrush attracted a bigger attendance on the four tournament days — 112,280 on the Dunluce compared to 110,716 at Muirfield.

Considering the appalling weather at Portrush, the total attendance of 131,000 compared to sun-splashed Muirfield’s 142,036 was a triumph. No-one disputes that accommodating the Open’s huge corporate facilities and massive Open grandstands at Portrush is a logistical nightmare but one wonders if the excuse of the annual July 12 Orange Order marching season and accompanying riots really stacks up?

Tiger fails to get up to speed on tricky greens

Tiger Woods has had nine top-10 finishes in Majors since he captured his 14th Grand Slam title in 2008.

Yet when one reflects on the reasons why he has failed to get over the line, his struggles with the putter stand out.

Woods had 33 putts on Saturday and another 33 on Sunday and complained: “You know what, I had a hard time adjusting to the speeds. They were much slower today... I just couldn’t ever get the pace of these things.”

Go back to the 2010 US PGA, where he was 28th, and he said: “Well, my speed’s been awful. This entire year it’s been bad. You can’t read greens if you can’t control your speed.”

Or what about the 2011 Masters, where he was fourth behind Charl Schwartzel? “I didn’t hit the ball good enough and I made too many mistakes around the greens, consequently I’m not there.”

How about last year’s US Open where he was tied for the lead at halfway but finished 21st in the end? “Never got the speed of the greens yesterday as well.”

And this year’s Masters, where he was fourth? “I had a hard time getting the speed...”

Missed greens cost Westwood

Lee Westwood’s short game and putting has often been cited as the reason why he has failed to win a Major so far.

His move to the US has certainly helped his game around the greens and he was ninth on the PGA Tour for scrambling this season compared to dead last (191st) in 2012.

Yet a quick look at the statistics from Muirfield proves that putting is not always the crucial factor.

Westwood was the top putter, breaking the 30-putt mark in all four rounds while champion Phil Mickelson was seventh. It wasn’t a good week to struggle to hit greens for the Englishman, who finished 69th in that department. Mickelson was 27th.

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