Home stars the major draw
The Irish Open will be a celebration of the unprecedented recent success of our golfers, says Dermot Gilleece
W hen the Irish Open first went to Killarney in June 1991, huge attention focused on the arrival of Payne Stewart, who was crowned US Open champion only after a play-off on the Monday of tournament week.
On its return to Killarney this week, under the 3 Mobile banner, the reigning US Open champion will have held the crown for over a month. And, of course, he is Irish.
In the past, successful stagings invariably hinged on the quality of the overseas entry, with Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer to the fore. Indeed, give us Seve and we'll build a tournament around him, was often the organiser's line. Now, the presence of Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy, Pádraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley and the holder, Shane Lowry, highlights the remarkable strength of the country's home-grown talent.
Given their capacity to take on and beat all-comers, it is clearly disappointing that Justin Rose, recent winner of the Memorial and AT&T tournaments in the US, is the only non-Irish player in the field from the world's top 20. Still, there are compensations. Matteo Manassero, the Italian prodigy who became 17 and a professional only two months ago, should be a tremendous attraction, if only for those students of a perfect putting action. And Italy's current golfing well-being will be further emphasised by Francesco Molinari's presence.
Ross Fisher, the big-hitting Alvaro Quiros, Ryder Cup candidate Ross McGowan and surprise BMW PGA champion, Simon Khan, will also be in action. For the first time since Carrolls revived the event in 1975, however, Irish entries actually dominate.
In this context, the presence of four elite amateurs is also decidedly welcome, given that they include Rathmore's Alan Dunbar, who recently added the North of Ireland title to his Irish Amateur Open success at Royal Dublin two months ago. He is joined by Pat Murray, Cian Curley and Paul Cutler.
Meanwhile, the return to Killarney brings to mind a trip I made there in 1969 for the Men's Amateur Home Internationals which happened to mark Michael Bonallack's 100th match for England and Joe Carr's representative swansong for Ireland. Naturally, it took place on the Mahony's Point course which was effectively Killarney GC at that time.
In the event, local officials, led by Dr Billy O'Sullivan, decided to take advantage of a large and influential gathering of British and Irish golf writers, by showing us the embryonic Killeen Course. The upshot was that after a champagne breakfast, we trooped off over ploughed fields behind the indefatigable local pied piper. At the end of our trek, the names of those present, myself included, were placed in an empty champagne bottle which was then buried in what is now the green on the short 10th. So, competitors be warned. On the 10th green, tread softly because you tread on . . .
Since then, the Killeen Course has developed into one of the country's finest parkland stretches. It certainly provided a worthy challenge in 1991 when Faldo, at the peak of his powers, captured the first of three successive Irish Open titles with a winning aggregate of 283 -- five-under par.
When I spoke to him at St Andrews, he recalled the tournament's part in his development as a player. "Ireland really started my competitive career and Killarney became a significant part of what I was to achieve as a successful player," he said. "I played for England as an amateur in the Home International at Portmarnock in 1975 and returned the following year as a professional to lead the pre-qualifiers for the Irish Open. I remember I didn't get any money; apparently I hadn't been long enough as a pro.
"I retain fond memories of Killarney, which was a great venue, not least for its wonderful lobster. I remember going out fishing before I was due to play in a skins game and the weather was unbelievably cold. There I was, sitting in a boat and my hands frozen stiff. And when I came in, I was told I was due on the tee within minutes. I don't know how I managed to swing the club.
"The second year there, when I retained the title, I remember being on the practice ground where I began to fade the ball around a telegraph pole. I found something which made me feel very comfortable. So I brought it onto the course -- for the right outcome, as it turned out."
That was when he entered the final round with a four-stroke lead only to falter seriously in a closing 75. He eventually won on the fourth hole of a sudden-death play-off with Wayne Westner. Apart from Faldo's impact, the 1991 staging was also memorable for a course-record final round of 65 from David Feherty and for Stewart's admirable commitment before jet-lag ultimately pushed him down into a share of 16th place.
Then in 1992 there was the emergence of a big, promising young South African by the name of Ernie Els, who ended the tournament by sharing 65th place with Irish amateur, Jody Fanagan.
McIlroy is certain to be accorded star status, not least for his exploits at St Andrews. "I can't say I remember Faldo's wins at Killarney -- I was only one or two years old at the time," he said. "But if he won there, it must be a good test. With a new date on the bank-holiday weekend, all we need are big crowds and decent weather for a great tournament."
As a newly-appointed Ryder Cup vice-captain along with McGinley, Clarke seemed preoccupied with forthcoming events at Celtic Manor when he and McIlroy beat Harrington and Lowry in the North v South Lough Erne Challenge last Wednesday.
Naturally, Harrington's absence from the current list of automatic qualifiers received a generous airing, sparked by "we all want Pádraig in the team" from Clarke.
The assumption seems to be that the Dubliner is beside himself with concern about gaining automatic qualification so as not to have to rely on a wild card nod from the skipper, Colin Montgomerie. For his part, however, Harrington spoke simply about his failure to earn sufficient world-ranking points and probably not having played enough European events. There was no hint of devastation at the prospect of missing out.
Clearly his greater concern right now is to regain competitive form ahead of the last major of the season, the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Wisconsin, starting on August 12. And there could hardly be a better place to rediscover the elusive touch than in the warm environment of supportive home fans in an event he captured at Adare three years ago.
Last year's staging at Baltray had much in common with the 2006 Ryder Cup at The K Club where horrendous weather was ultimately overcome by the quality of the golfing spectacle. And Lowry's progress since then has confirmed his credentials as a thoroughly worthy winner.
Now, the hope is that Killarney's undoubted quality as a world-renowned tourist destination will breathe new life into a championship which, despite a prize fund of €3m and €500,000 for the winner, has clearly struggled in recent years, not least because of hostile weather.
In the meantime, the process of picking the leading Irishman promises to be the most interesting in recent memory.