Italy finally falling in love with golf

Italian golf has reached previously unknown heights since the arrival in the big time over the last few years of the Molinari brothers Francesco and Edoardo and the clear possibility that in the 20 year-old Matteo Manassero, last week’s highly impressive winner of the BMW PGA Championship, they possess the next Tiger Woods.

Prior to the Molinaris at Celtic Manor in 2010, the only other Italian to grace a European Ryder Cup side was Costantino Rocca, and therein lies a fascinating background to the ethos of the game in the country.

The distinguished British journalist Peter Dobereiner once wrote that “golf in Italy is not for the riff-raff. The game is the preserve of wealth and breeding and privilege. Walk through the locker room of any Italian club and you will stumble over the highly polished, handmade shoes of dukes, counts and marquises, They do themselves well, these Italian golfers, especially in the luxury of their clubhouses and the scope of the dining facilities.”

That is surely one good reason why Italy didn’t produce a golfer of any great note until Rocca burst on the scene in the early 1990s. As it happened, he came from the other side of the tracks, the son of a miner and himself a former caddie. Even when he claimed the scalp of none other than Tiger Woods in the 1997 Ryder Cup singles at Valderrama, having lost to John Daly in a play-off for the 1995 Open Championship at St Andrews, it made little impression in his native land.

“I was more famous abroad than at home,” Rocca reported. “Going through customs in America, they asked, ‘are you here to beat Tiger again?’ Coming back to Italy, they asked, ‘do you have anything to declare?’”

Rocca started caddying with his older brother at the age of seven only to give it up after leaving school to work for a decade in a local plastics factory. He was 24 by the time he was hired by the Albenza club in Bergamo and turned professional.

How different it has all been for the Molinaris. They grew up in a fashionable area of Turin, the sons of a doctor and dentist. Manassero is from Verona where his father is a well-heeled pharmaceutical executive.

Rocca hasn’t allowed the gulf in their social backgrounds to prejudice his judgment and is genuinely delighted by the achievements of the Molinaris and Manassero.

“Manassero will inspire kids and the more kids there are means more Molinaris and more Manasseros,” he says. “If Italy doesn’t run with the ball this time round, it means we never will. Now, to keep up the current momentum, Italy needs to copy Spain and build new courses.”

Hopefully, Manassero’s Irish caddie, Dave McNeilly, can convince the brilliant youngster to enter the Irish Open at Carton House. Already confirmed starters are the Molinaris, offering fans in the grandstands surrounding the 17th green to revive the 2010 Ryder Cup chant: “There’s only two Molinaris!”

Irish Open a drawing card for Fáilte Ireland

Our government — in the guise of Fáilte Ireland — have contributed more than half of the €2m prize fund for the Irish Open for many years. Indeed, without the tourist board’s support, it is a near certainty that the country’s flagship event would have joined countless others on the European Tour’s scrap heap.

While all golfers and most sportsmen would be sad to see an occasion that has graced our summers since being revived back in 1975 after a 22-year hiatus go by the boards, there will also be those who can’t understand why the Government continues to pour significant sums of money into the tournament when funds for several deserving causes are stretched to breaking point.

Cork native Tony Lenehan is Fáilte Ireland’s head of golf tourism and is one of the people charged with convincing those who hold the purse strings that it is money well spent, that the Irish Open continues to attract large numbers of overseas golfers to our shores with consequential benefit for many elements of the industry and country in general.

He is only too well aware that the sceptics will use the Mark Twain observation that, “there are three kinds of lies — lies, damned lies and statistics”, when making his case, but taken at face value, the surveys into the values of golf tourism do seem to make positive reading.

“An estimated 163,000 overseas golfers visited Ireland in 2013, generating approximately €202m,” claims Fáilte Ireland. “They are amongst the most valuable visitors spending an estimated €1,200 per person on each trip, more than two-and-a-half times the expenditure of the average overseas visitor. This means that the accommodation, bars, restaurants sectors benefit accordingly.”

He adds: “Golf tourism has been outperforming the general tourism market in recent years, averaging 6% growth per annum between 2009 and 2012 compared with an average decline of 3% for inbound tourism during the same period.”

Pádraig seeks intercession of St Jude

Pádraig Harrington’s latest opportunity to revive his career comes this week in the St Jude Classic at the TPC Southwind course in Memphis, Tennessee. The 41-year-old Dubliner needs a morale booster ahead of the US Open at Merion, having struggled badly in recent times.

Interestingly, 14-year-old Chinese star Guan Tianlang has been handed his fourth invitation to a PGA Tour event on the back of making the cut in the Masters. There’s a prize fund of $5.7m (€4.3m) on offer in Memphis against a relatively meagre €1m in the Lyoness Open in Atzenbrugg, Austria, on the European circuit.

The Irish in that field are Damien McGrane, Gareth Maybin and David Higgins. Incidentally, Mikko Ilonen, the impressive winner in Stockholm on Sunday, is familiar with this country having captured the West of Ireland when it was played at Enniscrone in 1999. He returns later this month for a tilt at the Irish Open at Carton House.

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