However, if there was one thing missing, it was the absence of a serious Irish challenge as the championship entered its business end yesterday. Graeme McDowell had just three-putted the 15th from 60 feet to fall four off the pace and Pádraig Harrington, who had looked so promising after 36 holes, had gradually fallen by the wayside as the weekend progressed
It might be overstating things to suggest the atmosphere felt a little flat but the ringing cheers that had greeted the putts holed earlier in the week by McDowell, Harrington and even the disappointing Rory McIlroy were conspicuous for the most part by their absence. To be fair, the masses surrounding the imposing 18th green paid Mikko Ilonen — the epitome of Finnish poise until suffering a few nervous moments en route to a six at the 18th — due tribute, but it was nothing to what would have been witnessed and heard had it been either of the Irishman in that coveted position.
It was Ilonen’s fourth European Tour win and to go wire-to-wire was hugely impressive. And yet, his name will hardly mean a whole lot when future generations examine the list of Irish Open champions. Hands up those who remember Patrik Sjoland at Ballybunion in 2000 or Soren Hansen at Fota two years later? That in turn certainly comes as a disappointment to the many who once believed only one of the game’s greatest was fit to have their names etched on the trophy.
Indeed, there was a time when it was almost taken as an insult when the Irish Open was won by a non-major champion or at the very least one who had achieved considerable distinction on the world’s greatest golf courses. Having first been contested back in 1927, the championship continued until 1953 and during that time legends of the game like the South African Bobby Locke, Dai Rees of Wales and our own Fred Daly and Harry Bradshaw captured the title.
The championship was overseen during that period by the Golfing Union of Ireland, who then gave up on it for financial reasons clearing the way for the Dundalk tobacco company PJ Carroll to revive it at Woodbrook in 1975, when Christy O’Connor Jnr achieved something that had eluded his illustrious uncle, Christy Snr, by being crowned Irish Open champion.
Pat Heneghan of Carrolls put up a sizeable prize fund and also an even bigger appearance money kitty to attract the top players from across the Atlantic. Tom Watson was one of the attractions that year and while he made little impression, he advised Heneghan that for an Irish Open to be regarded as a worthy Trans-Atlantic jaunt by the best American players, it needed to be staged on one of our great links courses.
The approach was duly made to Portmarnock who had hosted the very first tournament won back in 1927 by George Duncan of England and they enthusiastically embraced the idea. And so began the list of famous players to inscribe their names on the trophy. In 1976 and ’77, Ben Crenshaw and Hubert Green, US Masters and Open winners, triumphed and over the years were followed by men of similar or even greater calibre ... Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie three times each; Ian Woosnam twice, Jose-Maria Olazabal, Michael Campbell and Pádraig Harrington.
Oddly enough, after Harrington in ’07, few of the names actually resounded through the world of golf. Richard Finch, Shane Lowry (then an amateur), Ross Fisher, Simon Dyson, Jamie Donaldson, Paul Casey and now Mikko Ilonen are all fine golfers, but none have as yet anyway attained the eminence of so many of their predecessors.
Since 1975, we have had only four Irish champions – O’Connor Jnr, John O’Leary, Harrington and Lowry – but at least on this occasion the latest winner, Ilonen, has an association of sorts with this country. In 1999, the Finnish Federation sent a six-man team to these islands to acquaint themselves with links golf and they duly turned up at Enniscrone (the venue because of diseased greens at Rosses Point) for the West of Ireland Championship.
The weather was dire — Ilonen recalls snow falling on one of those April days — but that was nothing new to the Scandinavians who didn’t allow such trivia to worry them. He shots rounds of 73 and 72 to qualify comfortably and then defeated Ricky Whitford (Knock), Randall Evans (Moyola Park), Eddie Power (Tramore), Jody Fanagan (Milltown) his fellow Finn Henri Salonen and Warrenpoint’s Rory Leonard in the final by 3&2.
There’s one Scandinavian who regards Ireland as a happy hunting ground and will be back to defend at Royal Co Down next June.