The greening of the Ryder Cup

The Irish have an uncanny knack of playing pivotal roles in European success at the biennial spectacular, says Simon Lewis

Christy’s, two-iron at The Belfry, 1989

CHRISTY O’Connor Jr had played just one Ryder Cup, 14 years earlier, when European captain Tony Jacklin made the Irishman a captain’s selection for the team’s home defence of the trophy.

Playing a pivotal singles match with Freddie Couples, the rivals were all square playing the last, the American having hammered a 300-yard drive down the fairway. O’Connor was still 235 yards out with water between him and the green but he hit the shot of his life, a two-iron to inside four feet for a birdie that a rattled Couples could only concede after a wayward nine-iron second shot.

The shock victory gave Europe the point that halved the match and retained the trophy but the shot still resonates.

“One of the most phenomenal shots in the history of the game,” said Couples’ caddie Mike ‘Fluff’ Cowan.

Christy, his white flat cap in his hand with arms outstretched, looked up to the skies. “Tears ran down my face,” he said. “It was the greatest and most emotional moment of my professional life.”

Philip Walton’s winning putt at Oak Hill, 1995

WITH Europe trailing by two points heading into the final day’s singles, Walton etched his name in Ryder Cup history with a 1-up victory over American Jay Haas, widely presumed to be the match favourite on home soil in upstate New York.

Yorkshire man Howard Clark had played his part with a 1-up win over Peter Jacobsen but Walton memorably completed the European comeback with a rally of his own.

The Irishman had been three up with three to play when Haas holed his bunker shot at the 16th and then won the 17th with a par as a nervous Walton missed his five-foot par putt.

His survival instincts kicked in, though, as Haas’s nerves deserted him on the 18th tee when he drove wide left and into trees before seeing his approach shot spin off the green. From the fringe, the American missed his par putt, leaving Walton to two-putt for bogey and the Ryder Cup.

Bernard Gallacher’s European team had famously secured a 14.5-13.5 victory and the captain was quickly on the celebratory scene at the 18th green, hugging an emotional Walton and lifting him off his feet to bring a dramatic and remarkable end to the Irishman’s only Ryder Cup appearance.

McGinley’s winning putt at The Belfry, 2002

PAUL McGinley had a marvellous Ryder Cup career spanning three matches between 2002-06, helping to win the trophy for Europe on each occasion but if he is remembered for nothing else, it will be for the final nerveless putt of his debut appearance to halve his match with Jim Furyk and clinch the team’s victory.

A year after the event was postponed in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the contest was tied 8-8 heading into the singles, which the USA traditionally dominated.

Sam Torrance’s team had other ideas and with Curtis Strange keeping best players Mickelson and Woods at the bottom of the line-up, the Europeans went on the charge, winning four of the first five and halving the other.

Paul Azinger kept the USA in it by halving with Niclas Fasth with an 18th-hole bunker hole-out and Furyk gave further hope as he nearly repeated the feat, only for McGinley to hole his eight-foot putt to grab the final half-point needed. And having been thrown into the greenside lake by his grateful team-mates, the picture of a drenched McGinley holding an Irish tricolour aloft is one that will go down in Ryder Cup history.

The Ryder Cup comes to Ireland, K Club, 2006

IRISH players had long been making significant contributions to the Ryder Cup cause, both with Great Britain & Ireland and then Europe, and in 2006, the country as a whole was given its chance to perform after the European Tour chose Ireland to stage the event in its 36th edition at the K Club in County Kildare. The Palmer Course by the River Liffey had staged Smurfit European Opens before but this was an altogether different deal as USA captain Tom Lehman brought a team chock full of stars including Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to take on a European team that had won the cup on American soil at Oakland Hills two years prior. And what a homecoming it was too, not even a downpour early in the week dampening spirits as Ian Woosnam’s Europe bulldozed the Americans 18½-9½ backed by passionate, noisy and joyous fans in every session, and none were cheered louder than Irish team members Pádraig Harrington, Paul McGinley and Darren Clarke (Des Smyth was one of Woosnam’s vice-captains) as the European flags turned the scoreboard blue.

Clarke’s tears flow at the K Club, 2006

SIX weeks after the death of his wife Heather to breast cancer, Darren Clarke, having been made one of European captain Ian Woosnam’s wild-card selections, wins all three of his matches to inject an emotional charge to a memorable 18.½-9½ rout on home soil.

Each match he played had made for exhilarating theatre as the predominantly Irish crowd greeted Clarke with heartfelt support and rousing cheers.

Playing in a fourball partnership with good friend Lee Westwood in the last match of the session on Friday, the Europeans beat Phil Mickelson and Chris DiMarco, 1-up and the following day returned to the format to take down another American big gun pairing in Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk, this time more comfortably, 3&2.

And then on Sunday, after Clarke’s singles encounter with Zach Johnson, a 3&2 victory concluded, the unbeaten Clarke collapsed tearfully into the arms of his caddie Billy Foster and then into Woosnam’s amid scenes of delirium and celebration.

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