Royal County Down fells the best and the brightest

You would be forgiven for not recognising many of the players on top of the leaderboard going into the Irish Open final round yesterday.

Names like Kjeldsen, Cabrera-Bello, Kieffer, Hatton and Ramsey would not have featured prominently in the pre-tournament promotion of a star-studded field.

However, after three rounds of hard graft, they all deserved special mention.

Gone from contention were all of the game’s superstars, with the possible exception of Luke Donald, but even he was challenging from the off yesterday for a morale-boosting performance rather than a victory.

Royal Co Down had thrown down the gauntlet to the challenging field over the week. The course difficulty was compounded by unrelenting cold, northwesterly winds and squally showers, but that is where the sympathy stops, because the unheralded leaders on the final day all embraced everything thrown at them and, collectively, they out-thought and outplayed more illustrious opponents with a mix of ingenious shots, sound game plans and no shortage of patience.

One could imagine the American golfing greats, such as Nicklaus, Watson and Trevino — who found a way to win in all weather conditions and on all surfaces — approving of the challenge. This was not a test of power or who can throw the most accurate darts on an excessively long course, as we most commonly witness from the somewhat cloned players on the PGA Tour.

Instead, it was all about creativity and imagination, coupled with patience and resilience, on a fast, bouncy course ravaged by strong winds and, as we saw even with our own Rory McIlroy — who blamed the weather conditions for his poor performance and openly talked about his game favouring American conditions — adaptation from convention was simply a bridge too far.

For those at the top of yesterday’s leaderboard it was their own major championship week, in that it was probably the strongest playing field with the highest world ranking points that they will participate in all year.

The Irish Open, of course, is not a major championship but in Dubai Duty Free, its sponsor, the star-studded field and capacity crowds again this year, it has the foundations as well as the arsenal to match its aspirations of being one of the strongest events on the European Tour.

To achieve that, it must continue to grow by attracting star players. If this week’s experience is anything to go by, it will only do that by securing a more attractive date over the summer months.

This Irish Open reminded all golfing enthusiasts of the level of difficulty the game can pose, even for the best players in the world. Regardless of the weather conditions, the golfing test was a stern examination of every player and their mental fortitude.

From the off, there was drama and urgent reassessment, ranking performances in terms of par golf as opposed to the birdie feasts we normally witness at most tour events.

The fact we lost so many of the leading lights on Friday meant little as, manfully, the lesser lights scrapped for victory over a course that was the true winner.

In the end, Soren Kjeldsen just about merited his play-off victory; all weekend he had looked the likely winner only to hit a wall of nerves over the closing holes in regulation play. Three-putts on the 14th and 17th holes and a spurned birdie opportunity on the last would have been a mortal blow for lesser golfers, but all weekend the Dane demonstrated the necessary resolve to compete successfully against the mighty RCD course.

Never was this demonstrated more than when he hit his majestic three metalwood second shot to the first play-off hole for a winning birdie.

Fortune favours the brave, they say. Many heroes emerged from what was probably the most severe test the European Tour players will face all year, none more than the diminutive Dane. For the rest of his life, he can remember the 2015 Irish Open as the week he took on and beat many of the most high-profile goliaths in the game.

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