Irish have game to shoot the breeze

IF Graeme McDowell scanned the bookmakers odds for this week’s British Open, he would have been slightly taken aback at being quoted at 30-1 compared to his young friend Rory McIlroy, who is second favourite at half those odds.

Such a differential hardly pays the new US Open champion due respect although the overall prices make for encouraging reading from an Irish viewpoint. The prospects of a third Open title in four years coming to this country are obviously bright.

Pádraig Harrington’s three majors in two years in 2007 and 2008 certainly created a sense of self-belief and confidence that, of course, was carried on magnificently by McDowell at Pebble Beach last month.

Still, it is not difficult to understand why so much money has gone on McIlroy. He boasts a fine record at St Andrews and loves the course. He certainly has the talent and temperament to match, although at 21 years, he is very much on the youthful side and would become the youngest champion since 1868.

In spite of his admirable record and indeed ground breaking achievements in ‘07 and ‘08, Harrington is now almost two years without a tournament victory. As against that, though, he could well have retained the PGA were it not for taking eight at a par three when very favourably placed well into the final round. So the big occasion certainly won’t faze him and having captured two Dunhill Links titles in St Andrews, he clearly finds the course to his liking.

“It’s important that I remember those two Open wins when I go to play,” he said. “Yeah, I have also won a couple of Dunhills here but it’s a different golf course when it comes to the Open. I doubt if anybody enjoyed their major victories as much as I did. I’ve won plenty of tournaments over the years and I would be sitting in the hotel bedroom at 10’clock on those nights looking at the four walls and thinking — what about it?

“But it wasn’t like that for the major wins. You focus on them and think about them and then you just want to go out and win another. Having won the three, it’s all about the fourth. That’s human nature.”

Lightning is unlikely to strike so quickly again for McDowell but his victory in the US Open was testimony as much to his temperament and courage as it was to his ball striking. Even so, he continues to look back on what he constantly refers to as a “surreal experience” with a touch of disbelief.

It was amazing how he held his head on that frighteningly difficult final day at Pebble Beach when the likes of Ernie Els, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, not to mention the hapless Dustin Johnson, were unable to cope. Furthermore, the way he has handled his newfound fame speaks volumes for the man who, on the face of it, probably reflects the best value of all the Irish contenders here this week.

But there’s always the weather and how it can influence the outcome. It was horrendous here yesterday, the forecast is far from encouraging and that has caused many good judges to turn to a man born and raised on the north coast of Ireland as the one best equipped to take advantage.

But McDowell doesn’t quite see it like that: “Yeah, for sure, it’s funny, when the wind blows and it starts raining, people always say to me, geez, you must love this, when the truth is I hate it the same as everyone else,” he maintains.

“True, I did grow up in it in Portrush and maybe I’ve got a kind of game that can deal with it a little bit more. You’ve got to be prepared for anything this tournament can throw at you. We always joke around that they should try and play the British Open in the summer some year.”

Darren Clarke (80-1) was runner-up for the title in 1997 and has two other top 10 finishes to his credit, seventh at St Andrews in 2000 and third at Lytham a year later.

The 41-year-old bounced back to form last week, following up his win in the JP McManus Pro-Am with second place in the Scottish Open. That has done wonders for his confidence and he could certainly be a dark horse over the next four days. He loves the Old Course and enthuses that “this is proper golf”.

The week will be another part of the learning curve for 3 Irish Open champion Shane Lowry. He has shown steady and impressive improvement over the past few months and had his second top 10 finish of the season at Loch Lomond last week.

The fact that he is no better than 12-1 to be top Irishman is a tribute to the progress he has made in his 14 months as a pro, especially considering the strength of the opposition.

Gareth Maybin (225-1) and Colm Moriarty (600-1) complete the Irish interest this year and realistically both would do very well to survive the 36 hole cut.


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