Record crowds into six figures proved the wisdom of a first Irish Open on the revered Antrim links since 1947 and gave the R&A plenty of food for thought as the clamour for a first Open Championship here since 1951 grew louder on a red letter day for the European Tour.
The only downside was that Pádraig Harrington could not quite deliver the title many had expected him to after starting the day just two shots off the lead, the 2007 champion’s putting yesterday denying the Dubliner a second Irish Open victory of his career. Yet with this year’s Open Championship looming and Harrington having returned to form in style after plenty of time in the wilderness following his third major win in 2008, he will gladly bide his time a little while more for that long-awaited return to the winner’s circle.
If nothing else, Donaldson’s four-shot victory will underline Harrington’s championing of patience.
At the 255th time of asking, the Welshman finally captured his maiden European Tour title with a nerveless and near-faultless fourth round of six-under-par 66, completing a sweep of rounds in the 60s. That left Donaldson on 18 under, four clear of Spaniard Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Paraguay’s Fabrizio Zanotti (both of whom carded 66) and England’s Anthony Wall, who recovered from a triple-bogey eight at the second hole to post 69.
Not an Irishman in sight, with Harrington finishing the best of the home contingent at 12 under par in a tie for seventh. But though Donaldson may have spoiled the Irish party, you would not have noticed from the reception he received as he birdied the final hole. With a one-shot lead over Wall after 54 holes and an at times injury-riddled career without winning, the 37-year-old might have wobbled but he started strongly with birdies at the second, third and fourth and closed out in equally assured style – birdie-birdie-bogey-birdie — to impress the record crowds totalling 122,280 for the four rounds which will have further pressed Royal Portrush’s claims to return to The Open rota.
“I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet, and I don’t think it will until tomorrow,” Donaldson said. “I’ve actually just calmed down now that we’ve left the golf course, but obviously at the moment it feels very, very special to be sat here with the trophy. Surreal is the word I’m looking for.”
Harrington got off to the worst possible start by bogeying the first hole. He had teed off to a huge roar from the fans thronging around the first tee but the day was not to be his and it was his failure to pick up shots around the turn on the par-five ninth and 10th, followed by a bogey at 11 that put paid to his title hopes.
“The first didn’t kill me,” Harrington said. “It was tough, yes but eight, nine, 10, 11 killed me, left four shots out there and was disappointed on 11. I was down at that stage.
“It’s tough when the putts aren’t dropping, it’s tough to gain any momentum or any confidence out there.”
There will be plenty of plusses for Harrington, though, on top of his two top-10 finishes in the Majors this year as he now turns his focus to Royal Lytham in less than three weeks and the chance to win the Claret Jug for the third time.
“I hit the ball really well,” he said. “I can only think of two less than perfect shots out there. There’s a lot of good play out there that’s nice to have going forward. Between this and the Scottish Open they should provide good preparation for Lytham.”
Like Harrington, fellow Irish Major winners Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke will go to Lytham cheered by their return to links play. McDowell and McIlroy shot their best rounds of the week yesterday, a 66 and 67 respectively to finish 10 under and 11 under.
And 12 months after finally realising his Open ambitions, Clarke marked his return to action following injury with some golf on his local course that points to a happy climax to a difficult year on the course since he lifted the Claret Jug. Perhaps Royal Portrush will leave the Irish smiling after all.