WITH an impressive tented village at the heart of the picture-postcard Adare Manor hawking expensive jewellery, Audis and gourmet sandwiches, it seemed the Irish Open was like Electric Picnic for the middle aged.
And walking the rope with about 20 or so other die-hards to follow the early action between our own Peter Lawrie and Australian Scott Strange, one had the quiet satisfaction similar to enjoying a favourite cult band that no one else is interested in.
The Castleknock man bantered with the faithful few who shunned the brighter lights of the Harrington roadshow, or even the draw of Clarke, McGinley and McIlroy for this off Broadway production as he and his Aussie playing partner battled well on a pleasant Saturday morning.
On a day that grew warmer, it occurred to me what a nice way this must be to make a good living. In the same way Mary McAleese must think Ireland smells of drying paint and fresh flowers because of the effort Muinter na hÉireann put in before her visits; so too, this golfing elite must think the world, or perhaps this country at least, is a picturesque, affluent resort with bottles of chilled Ballygowan water every 700 yards.
And Lawrie certainly played like a man enjoying his craft. His disciples, the type perhaps who once rooted for Martin Earley rather than the more high-profile and successful Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche in the 1980s, took pleasure in the intimate relationship they developed with these sportsmen and their caddies.
One of Ronald Reagan’s White House aides, once told journalists that a particular prickly, political situation was almost causing his laid-back boss “sleepless afternoons”.
Lawrie was as cool — until he hit a tee shot towards Charleville town centre and one of our number, searching subsequently for a better vantage point at the 16th, dared crunch around in the dry leaves, distracting the athlete.
After seeing Ian Brown in concert once, and blagging my way into his exclusive after-show party, I was physically, and with extreme prejudice, thrown out by the former Stone Roses lead singer. I respected him more for it, afterwards. When Lawrie recovered from the distraction of Foliagegate, and our embarrassed friend had been politely but crisply warned to stand still, his was the loudest: “Great shot, Peter!”
And on again we went. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
BUT on to more box-officefare now: Monty. On a waveof almost tangible affection, rolling up the greens towards me was the Scotsman and a sizeable and vociferous bunch, taking perhaps their cue from the Ryder Cup veteran who chatted throughout, offering encouragement to his playing partner Gary Orr. But the great Scot with his swashbuckling style was merely a warm-up act for the main event.
Approximately 20,000 spectators flooded into the grounds of the imposing Limerick manor on Saturday; Pádraig Harrington must have had 3,000 of them craning their necks and jostling for position all the way around. This is a different man to the one who played these holes last year.
Bridging the gap between John O’Leary’s victory in our Open in 1982 before, of course, clinching the Claret Jug at the Open, has transformed the Dubliner into a genuine star. And what odds a future Irish golf sensation will one day, when pressed by a journalist, volunteer Harrington’s performance over the weekend, as a display, which once inspired a young hopeful? There were certainly enough young people totally transfixed by the note-perfect technique of Harrington throughout to suggest that one among them will take encouragement.
But if Harrington is now the maestro, so Paul McGinley must feel like Antonio Salieri, toiling in the shadow of Wolfgang Mozart. However, McGinley brought his fair share of supporters too. Paired with the affable John Bickerton, McGinley was like a man introducing an English work colleague to his friends and neighbours down the local. Bickerton, keen to share a joke with the masses, but sometimes not understanding the nuances of the Irish vernacular, needed a patient but bemused-looking McGinley to translate on occasion.
But perhaps it’ll be Rory McIlroy who will take Harrington’s throne ultimately. In a sport where the very best have jazz in their arms, here is a born rocker. His long hair and confident stride as he gatecrashes the party mark the 19-year-old apart. Certainly after the Open champion, this starlet drew the largest crowd.
The Irish public know a good song when they hear one.
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