A home win slipped from Ireland’s grasp at Fota Island as Graeme McDowell’s putter went cold but that was all that was missing from a successful 2014 Irish Open, won in impressive style by Finland’s Mikko Ilonen.
Big crowds the envy of Europe, glorious weather and a couple of Irish golfers in contention on the final day made for the perfect showcase for this still sponsor-less European Tour event but the crystal trophy found its rightful place in the hands of 34-year-old Ilonen. He had taken a stranglehold on the tournament on Thursday morning with an opening seven-under-par 64 and tightened his grip with every round for a thoroughly deserved wire-to-wire victory.
The chasing pack could not find an answer on a final day which had seen Ilonen lead by a shot on 12 under from England’s Danny Willett and two ahead of McDowell, with Irish hopes further encouraged by Gareth Maybin on eight under and Pádraig Harrington on six under.
Yet the charge did not come, Harrington and Maybin finishing in a group on eight under in a tie for 14th place with rounds of 69 and 71 respectively. McDowell, meanwhile, was unable to buy a putt that would have placed Ilonen under huge pressure had any one of his 10 or so birdie putts from inside 10 feet gone in over the weekend’s rounds of 69 and 71.
The Portrush golfer would finish with the disappointment of a level-par 71 and tie for sixth place on 10 under, three behind Ilonen, who shot a 70 with the comfort of bogeying the last to win by a shot from Italy’s Edoardo Molinari.
English duo Matthew Baldwin and Willett shared third place with Sweden’s Kristoffer Broberg with his compatriot Magnus Carlsson tying with the deeply disappointed McDowell left to ponder one that got away in a final round of one birdie and one bogey.
“Perhaps one of the worst putting rounds as a weekend in my career as regards being in contention,” McDowell said. “I let a lot slip away Saturday. You know, continued in the same vein yesterday. I kind of got in that mode where I was starting to search a little bit on the greens, over-reading, over-technicalising [sic].
“The hole started to shrink as I started to look deep inside my technique.
“Yeah, disappointing, because I did the tee-to-green stuff. I hit the ball well enough. Maybe didn’t get it in enough fairways on the front nine but drove it well on the back and couldn’t get the ball in the hole.
“So really disappointed; what a fantastic weekend, great Irish Open, great fans and just disappointed I couldn’t have done a little better for them.”
Encouraged to look for positives from his best finish in his 13th Irish Open appearance since debuting at Fota Island in 2002, McDowell said: “I’m kind of focusing on the big picture this week, looking at the summer and looking at the two major championships upcoming and Ryder Cups and all kinds of fun things to look forward to.
“Game is in great shape and a lot of positives this week. This represents my best Irish Open finish ever, so that’s a positive. It was there for the taking this week, no doubt about it. This golf course was nice and receptive and playable and lots of birdies to be made and I just couldn’t seem to get the ball in the hole. But you know what, I had amazing support this weekend and I really enjoyed myself.
“Royal County Down next year [for the 2015 Irish Open], it’s going to be a bit special. I’ve got a big summer event [the birth of his first child], defending at the French Open in a couple weeks’ time, and then The Open Championship. So bring it on. I feel good.”
Ilonen may have lacked the fervent support an Irish player would have received but he was grateful for the backing he did get from a final day crowd of 29,387 that pushed the total attendance including last Wednesday’s Pro-Am to 104,000.
“I’ve experienced these crowds before, and especially two years ago in Portrush,” the Finn said.
“I played with Rory [McIlroy] on the last day, and back then, I remember saying to Rory, thanks for playing in this tournament — because I wasn’t into The Open that year, and I said, ‘this is my Open’. Obviously it’s a slightly different kind of golf course this time around, but an [Irish] Open and parkland course, this was it. Nice.”
Nice, too, to join an illustrious group of champions this tournament has produced and as Ilonen looked at the trophy plinth bearing the names of Ballesteros, Langer, Faldo, Olazabal and Harrington to name but a few he added: “It’s a very humbling moment obviously, to have a look at these names. Obviously I had an idea who is in it already, watching this tournament before I even came to the tour. There’s been some good winners of this tournament. It’s a big thing for me.”