Irish Open offers Pádraig way back

AWARE the Irish Open would go ahead in 2011 without a title sponsor, the country’s leading players promised to do all they could to ensure the success of the championship.

They went out into the highways and byways in search of a sponsor, without success.

So they then came up with different ways of solving the problem. Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke captured back-to-back major championships and made it clear that they would be at Killarney over the August weekend, doing battle for their native title.

Add the 2010 US Open winner Graeme McDowell and three-times Major champion Pádraig Harrington to the mix and you have a mouth-watering prospect in store for Irish galleries even if, with the exception of defending champion Ross Fisher, most of the other leading Europeans apparently have better things to do next week.

Clarke’s magnificent victory atRoyal St George’s was an extremely popular one, not just with the player himself, his family and legion ofsupporters but also with thebookmakers.

No more than anyone else, they never saw it coming and laid him at almost any price you wanted. There were very few takers and that’s its own demonstration of just how much the golfing world was taken by surprise by the big man’s triumph.

At 42, you had to believe that his best days were behind him and that all he could look forward to in a golfing sense was the captaincy of the Ryder Cup in 2014 or 2016.

And yet an inner belief, fuelled by his win in Majorca in May and by a comfortable, well organised domestic life back in Portrush, convinced him that he still had something to offer. He always had the golf game, now it was allied to a strong, confidentmindset which in turn created the belief that he was just as good as the next guy.

The manner in which he accepted his many good breaks with a quiet smile and the odd bad bounce with a similar equanimity proved just as invaluable as the concerted series of long, straight drives, those beautifully punched iron shots and “stingers” off the tee, not to mention a golden touch with the putter.

It was a master class of how to play links golf in a high wind and made him the worthiest of champions.

Clarke’s success will have provided considerable food for thought for many of his rivals, not least Harrington, who started this amazing sequence of Irish Major wins at Carnoustie four years ago andmaintained it at Hoylake and Oakland Hills in 2008.

The Dubliner is exactly three years younger than Clarke but there are those already insisting that his best days are already behind too.

It looked a little incongruous on Sunday to see Harrington working on the practice range at Sandwich under the watchful eye of his coach Bob Torrance, only taking time off to shake Clarke’s hand and wish him well as he made his way to the first tee. He himself had missed the cut and some would have wondered what he was doing there at all. But that’s Pádraig’s way, he believes in hard work and in himself and his golf game and now has his sights set firmly on Killarney next week.

He recently referred to the Irish Open as his “fifth Major”. He won it in Adare in 2007, was runner-up to Fisher last year but probably never needed a bigger week at the event more than now. The claim that his game is better now than it was in 2007 has baffled those who look at a lone success in a relatively minor event in Malaysia, the Iskandar Johor Open, in 2010 as his only victory since the 2008 US PGA Championship. Perhaps even more relevant is his record to date in 2011. It doesn’t make for pretty reading.

Abu Dhabi Championship (disqualified), Champions in Bahrain (58th), Pebble Beach pro-am (68th), Los Angeles Open (55th), Accenture World Match Play (33rd), WGC Cadillac World Championship (10th), Transitions tournament (missed cut), Houston Open (eighth), Masters (missed cut), China Open (missed cut), Quail Hollow (ninth), Players Championship (missed cut), St Jude Classic (52nd), US Open (45th), Travelers Championship (63rd), Scottish Open (14th), British Open (missed cut).

He is now out to 62nd in the world rankings, 85th in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai order of merit and 105th on the US PGA Tour’s money list.

And yet, just as McDowell, McIlroy and now Clarke took their lead from Pádraig after his achievements in 2007 and 08, he can now do things the other way around, (starting in Killarney and moving on from there). He certainly possesses the will and work ethic. The big question is whether he still has the game.

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