ACCORDING to legendary golfer Christy O’Connor Junior, the Irish Open “is more like a festival than a golf tournament”.
O’Connor was winner of the 1975 Irish Open at Woodbrook in Co Limerick and earned the equivalent of a €7,000 first prize cheque from a prize fund of €34,000 for his one-shot victory over Scotland’s Harry Bannerman 35 years ago.
Fast forward to this week where Competitors at the ‘3’ Irish Open at Killarney will be playing for a prize purse of €3m with the winner set to pocket a €500,000 payout.
“Killarney is a great venue for the Irish Open and I was really pleased when I heard the announcement the tournament was heading back there after a long break,” said O’Connor. “There are just so many golfers playing golf in that part of the country so they should have huge crowds there and everyone will enjoy the week.
“But then the Irish Open is just so special. It has a special atmosphere. We saw that last year when Shane Lowry won as there was thousands up there at Baltray and not worried one bit about the weather. The Irish Open is more like a festival than a golf tournament.”
Like Lowry, O’Connor’s Irish Open success was his maiden victory on the European Tour. Despite the passage of time his memories of victory remain crystal clear.
“I turned 25 the week before and I won the tournament with a 22-under par,” he recalled. “I shared the lead on the first day with a 66, but then fell one behind on day two. Then after day three I was leading by three and I managed to shoot a final round 70 and win by a stroke.
“The event was played at Woodbrook which is a great course and it’s the only time the Irish Open was held there.
“I remember also how delighted I was to be handed the trophy. I had won the Zambian Open the year before, but to win an Irish Open as my first European Tour win was special. Everyone was just so excited and the win helped me to finish seventh that year on the money list which was the highest in my career.
“I would agree that a golfer’s CV would be not be complete if they did not win their own national open,” he added.
“But this year’s Irish Open promises to be something special with the likes of Padraig, Graeme and Rory all playing so well, and then you have Darren who would have been very disappointed not to have won the Scottish Open.
“Years ago we had the likes of Des Smyth, Eamon (Darcy) and Phillip Walton flying the Irish flag so it seems the Irish Open has always had a very strong field. Of course, we didn’t have any Major winners as we have now.”
German golfing great Bernhard Langer has a special affinity for the Irish Open, having won the title in 1984, 1987 and 1994.
“The Irish Open has always been one of the better events on the European Tour and to have won it three times is very special to me,” said Langer. “The Irish people know a lot about golf and it’s always been played on great golf courses, and it’s always been considered as a strong championship boasting strong fields.
“But of the three I won my second victory at Portmarnock was extra special as I led from start to finish that year and I could not have played any better. I just did everything well that week and to have won eight of the European national Open titles, including three Irish Opens, plus the European Open, has been a special part of my career.”
Sam Torrance downing a pint of Murphy’s after his 1995 Irish Open success at Mount Juliet in 1995 has become one of the iconic images of the championship.
“You know, I’ve still got the glass,” he joked.
Torrance went into the closing round tied in second place and trailing a stroke behind Colin Montgomerie. However, Monty seemed more worried with policing the camera-clicking crowd and found himself out of the final frame with Torrance and the England pair of Howard Clarke and Stuart Cage ending tied.
Torrance then captured his 20th European Tour success in stunning manner by holing a nine-foot eagle putt at the second extra hole. It was Torrance’s second Irish Open success coming 14 years after winning by five shots from Nick Faldo at Portmarnock in 1981.
“I just loved playing in the Irish Open as it was kind of like playing in a Major with the crowds that turn out for the tournament,” said Torrance.
“It was played around the time of the Open Championship and we played courses like Portmarnock that were especially great to play.
“Then to win at Mount Juliet by eagling the second play-off hole is something I’ll never forget.
“And the Irish crowds are just fantastic and very much like the Scots because they just love their golf. They are pure golf fans and just love watching golf no matter the conditions. I’ve seen what a great field they’ve got this year so it all looks good for another great Irish Open. I still rank those two Irish Open wins very high up in my career and just behind winning the Australian PGA (1980) which was my best victory.”
Before Padraig Harrington was winning Major Championships and long before Rory McIlroy was born, Des Smyth was a cornerstone of Irish golf. The affable Drogheda golfer turned pro in 1974 at the age of 21 and he competed on the European Tour in an unbroken run of 28 years.
Smyth claimed 16 victories in that period, including eight on the European Tour and he still holds the record of being the oldest-ever Tour winner in capturing the 2001 Maderia Islands Open. But while winning on the Portuguese holiday island remains special to Smyth so too are his memories of contesting the Irish Open.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re an Irishman, a Swede, a Scotsman or an Australian as you always enjoy competing in your own national Open,” he said.
“It’s a special tournament and one that every Irish player looks forward to, and this year will no different to the big cast of Irish players competing in Killarney.”
Smyth singled out the impact of Harrington’s triple Major success as the chief reason for the rise in Irish golfing stock.
“I knew when Padraig started winning Majors there would be a reaction as there was a lot of good players coming in behind him. But I must admit I didn’t think it would be as quickly and as big as it’s grown, what with Graeme winning the US Open – I watched every shot of his victory and it was brilliant.
“Then you have Rory McIlroy. What a talent he is. I also watched coverage of him winning the Quail Hollow Championship and that was also amazing. After he finished third in the British Open it can only be a matter of time before he joins Padraig and Graeme as a Major Champion. Rory just possesses so much talent, and to have reached Number 7 in the world in such a short space of time speaks volumes for his ability.
“But the Irish Open has always been a big deal for the Irish players, and though Padraig won at Adare Manor a couple of years ago, it would be nice if another could win at Killarney. We have the right guys to do that.
“The programmes that are running in Ireland are working well just like they have been in countries like Australia and Sweden and that’s a bonus because Ireland has invested heavily and it’s great to see the returns we’re now getting.”
The closest Smyth came to Irish Open success was tied second but seven shots behind Welshman Ian Woosnam in 1988 at Portmarnock. And despite capturing six Irish National PGA Championships, failure to claim an Irish Open is something that still disappoints the now 57-year old.
“I always will regret not winning the Irish Open, just as much as any player would regret not winning his or her own national open. It would have been nice to add it to my CV, but it just didn’t happen. But I have so many fond memories of playing the Irish Open. It was played at Portmarnock for so long and then they started moving it around the country which was good for the tournament. The crowds just seemed to flock to the event, but it’s going to be something special this year with two Major champions in Padraig and Graeme competing, plus there’s Rory and, of course, Shane Lowry is defending. I will enjoy watching it closely on TV.”
Eamon Darcy captured three national open titles in his career, winning the Spanish Open, the Belgium Open and the New Zealand Open, but never an Irish Open.
The closest Darcy went to tasting a home success was in 1975 when his now long-time friend Christy O’Connor relegated him to a share of third place and four shots behind.
“I was about four behind and it was the closest I came to winning an Irish Open,” said Darcy. “But when I was competing full time on the Tour the Irish Open was the one week I always looked forward to, and I would always try to have my game peaking for that particular week.”
In Darcy’s prime the Irish Open used to be staged in July, close to the staging of the British Open. But Ireland’s premier golfing event fell on hard times losing sponsors and also its July scheduling.
“We’ve always had good courses good sponsors in Carroll’s and Murphys,” said Darcy. “But once they lost those sponsors it then had to be propped up by the Tour and that also meant losing the great date it had. The prize money is now €3m so that’s a great prize purse and it’s good that they have ‘3’ as the main sponsor. I always looked forward to the Irish Open and I know that all the Irish will be excited about going to Killarney.”
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