TWELVE months ago, Padraig Harrington achieved what many were beginning to believe was the impossible — he became the first home player in a quarter of a century to win the Irish Open.
The hoodoo in existence since John O’Leary’s victory in 1982 had been broken and now half a dozen Irishmen believe they can keep the title at home.
Adare Manor Hotel and Golf Resort has looked better over the past few days than any picture postcard you could imagine.
More importantly as the only major professional championship to be staged on this island in 2008, it is all augmented by a Robert Trent Jones-designed golf course fit to stand alongside the world’s finest. And when, for once, the weather in the weeks before and during the Irish Open is just what course superintendent Joe O’Flaherty and his staff would have dreamed of, you have the perfect scene set for a hugely successful tournament.
The knockers have had their say, telling us that this will be the last Irish Open and maybe the last Irish Open for some time.
Adare owner Tom Kane denies such claims, noting that he is “contractually obligated” for next year and in no way prepared to allow a loss of €1.6million on last year’s tournament to deflect him.
With that kind of negativity in the background, it is now timely for everybody to get behind the national championship.
In spite of the defection of original entrants Thomas Bjorn, the 2006 winner, and Niclas Fasth, the big names have lent their support this time round with Pádraig Harrington, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Robert Karlsson from the world’s top 50 in the field along with seven current Ryder Cuppers; Harrington, Westwood, Montgomerie, Paul McGinley, Darren Clarke, David Howell and Robert Karlsson.
Inevitably, some of this illustrious group will come into the reckoning where the first prize of €416,660 is concerned.
Montgomerie is a three-times former champion and with his golfing fortunes currently at a low note, will be desperately keen to follow up his successes at Druids Glen in 1996 and ‘97 and Fota Island in 2001.
Of the others, Westwood is the most experienced and successful but has yet to inscribe his name on the trophy. The German Kaymer looked set for great things when he saw off a strong field in Abu Dhabi in January but not a whole lot has been heard of him since.
Still, his presence, and that of other ‘08 winners Richard Finch, John Bickerton, James Kingston, SSP Chowrasia, Felipe Aguilar, Mark Brown, Graeme McDowell, Alastair Forsyth, Damien McGrane, Clarke and Peter Lawrie, highlights the talent attracted to the €2.5m event.
All of which brings us nicely to the prospects of a second successive home victory.
It is astonishing there have been four Irish winners (Graeme McDowell, Damien McGrane, Clarke and Peter Lawrie) on tour this season and Harrington hasn’t been one of them. If Pádraig doesn’t ascend the winner’s rostrum on Sunday would like nothing better than to see a compatriot do so.
“Graeme’s win was due to his own motivation, he wanted to move on and get the job done,” he said.
“Damien was determined that he was going to have a win on the tour and I think Peter would agree that while we all know he had the talent to win, he needed to see Damien win to give him a kick start.”
He said of Clarke’s success: “Darren always had the talent to come back. Obviously, there are things there and issues in his life. The main thing for him is to separate his ability to play golf and his home life.
“It’s great to see Darren come back and win and I only hope he can manage to keep the two separate.”
Clarke may be as inconsistent as he often admits to being but the big man from Dungannon looked in happier yesterday than I have seen him for some time and with his sights set on winning for the second time on home soil after victory in the Smurfit European Open at The K Club in 2001.
It helps, he feels, that he has now retraced many of the steps he took with his wife, Heather, before her death in August, 2006.
“I’ve been to the Ryder Cup since she passed away, I’ve won again since she passed away,” he says. “I’ve done all those first-time things.”
Time was when you would simply add the name of Paul McGinley (winner of the Irish PGA Championship here in 2003) and restrict the number of potential home winners to three. However, as recent events have shown, that is no longer the case with McDowell, McGrane and Lawrie among the visitors to the winners enclosure. However, those recent successes has caused each one to inevitably believe they can win again soon.
So, too, will the richly talented 19-year-old Rory McIlroy and the more seasoned Gary Murphy. And to whet the fans’ appetites, there are numerous other players from almost every nook and cranny in the country to maintain an interest.
In every sense, an Irish Open in the best traditions of the 1970s and 80s is very much on the cards.
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