Saturday 22 November 2014

Ireland's Four Coursemen of the Apocalypse

History-making has become almost commonplace for home-grown aces in golf’s most forbidding arenas

Karl MacGinty

Published 10/06/2013 | 05:00

Rory Mcilroy (pictured), Graeme McDowell, Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke lead the Irish charge at next weekend’s second major of the year, but all four are in very different places with their game heading to Merion
Rory Mcilroy (pictured), Graeme McDowell, Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke lead the Irish charge at next weekend’s second major of the year, but all four are in very different places with their game heading to Merion
Graeme McDowell
Padraig Harrington
Darren Clarke

IT'S not difficult to understand why the United States Golf Association chose the East Course at Merion to host this week's US Open, even if it is held in claustrophobic embrace by the leafy suburbs of Ardmore in north-west Philadelphia and measures a trifling 6,996 yards long.

IT'S not difficult to understand why the United States Golf Association chose the East Course at Merion to host this week's US Open, even if it is held in claustrophobic embrace by the leafy suburbs of Ardmore in north-west Philadelphia and measures a trifling 6,996 yards long.

This year's championship pays homage to the 117-year tradition of Merion Golf Club and the many legends born on its pinched fairways and treacherously small and tilted greens.

This is where Bobby Jones, as a notoriously truculent 14-year-old, made his debut at the US Amateur Championship in 1916; captured that prestigious title for the first time in 1924 and rounded off golf's only 'Grand Slam' by winning the 1930 US Open.

Ben Hogan's victory here in the 1950 US Open, in defiance of crippling injuries sustained 17 months earlier in the motor accident which almost killed him, is one of the greatest achievements in the game's annals.

The photograph of Hogan's famed one-iron shot from the fairway on his 72nd hole ranks among the most iconic sporting images of the 20th century.

Other unforgettable snapshots from Merion show Lee Trevino breaking the tension on the first tee of his 1971 play-off with Jack Nicklaus by tossing a rubber snake at the Golden Bear. 'TexMex' chucked a few birdies at Nicklaus too, shooting 68 to beat him by three.

FORMIDABLE

All this history made worthwhile the formidable challenge of safely packing more than 25,000 people into the club each day this week and giving this elegant old lady enough nip, tuck and metaphorical botox to quicken the pulse of the modern elite golfer.

Should the forecast rain and thunderstorms give way to dry, hot weather, she'll break many a famous heart. For Merion is no pushover. As one grizzled old-timer in the caddyshack says: "The East Course has everything you need for theatre – the first six holes provide drama; the next seven comedy and tragedy on the final five."

The legends of 20th century golf lived in more benevolent times. Few were monks or boyscouts, but a blind eye was turned to their peccadilloes. Today's Tour stars aren't so lucky. No longer do we airbrush our sporting heroes, as Tiger Woods will readily attest.

The instant global outcry stirred by the inane racial barb Sergio Garcia recently aimed at his nemesis, Woods, illustrated how bright the social and mass media spotlight has become.

If anything, today's heroes must be mentally tougher to survive in such an unforgiving, apocalyptic environment. This makes the Major-winning achievements of Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke all the more creditable.

Six years ago, after six drought-stricken decades at the Majors since Fred Daly's solitary British Open win at Hoylake in 1947, few in Irish golf dared dream that one of our own might prevail in the sport's harshest arena.

Yet Harrington believed enough in himself to prevail over Garcia at that toughest venue of them all, Carnoustie, in the 2007 British Open. He followed up with another win at Royal Birkdale in 2008 and, four weeks later, the US PGA Championship at Oakland Hills.

The Dubliner helped McDowell gird himself for US Open glory at Pebble Beach in 2010. The uniquely-gifted McIlroy, a two-time Major-winner by age 23, was always going to flourish on this stage, but seeing three fellow Irishmen win on this stage definitely equipped Clarke for his remarkable breakthrough at Sandwich in 2011, at age 42!

Each has a different tale to tell. McIlroy's the most exciting young player in golf, while McDowell, at 33, looks Trevino-tough in this exacting environment. Clarke crumpled under the weight of self-expectation, while Harrington cracked, though he's not beyond repair.

Yet, as the week of the 113th US Open dawns at Merion, all four enjoy pride of place among the modern history-makers of golf – and because of their efforts, we Irish are no longer considered also-rans in the Major championship arena.

IN a recent poll, 70 US PGA Tour players were asked by 'Sports Illustrated' how many Majors would McIlroy win.

There were three options: 19pc believed he'd collect eight or less; 18pc went for 12-plus, while the majority, 63pc, guessed McIlroy would amass between eight and 12.

One respondent remarked: "Rory will win as many Majors as he wants."

Our nameless friend is spot-on!

McIlroy's technically more gifted than Woods, but seems nowhere near as obsessed, which is good, considering the damage Tiger's myopic pursuit of greatness wreaked upon his private life.

Never mind those who throw McIlroy's girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki under the bus every time he misses a cut or two – but never gave her credit as he trounced all-comers last autumn.

McIlroy's lucky to have discovered life beyond the fairways. It helps keep him sane and well balanced amid the lunacy of global sports celebrity.

Still, his commitment to his art sometimes can be questioned, while the self-certainty and impetuous nature which help make McIlroy a world-beater also leads him up the occasional blind alley.

For example, McIlroy admitted taking his "eye off the ball" after first making it to No 1 15 months ago, leading indirectly to the form slump last summer which made him wonder "if I'd ever play good golf again."

He's made errors this year too – ie, having decided to replace all 14 clubs in his bag in one swoosh, McIlroy played too infrequently to properly adjust.

The resulting loss of confidence and momentum led to his astonishing meltdown on Friday at the Honda and his recent missed cut at Wentworth.

McIlroy's desire to set up his own management company, comprising family, close friends and confidants, is commendable ... but embarking on this course in mid-season and with several years remaining on his contract with Horizon is hard to fathom.

Much of his inconsistency has been entirely of McIlroy's own making. He's still finding the path that's best for him. When he does, he'll probably be unbeatable.

As for this week, McIlroy will win at Merion if he truly believes he can.

SOME like it hot – none more so than Graeme McDowell, who'd prefer Merion to play hard, run fast and this week be as demanding as any US Open venue is meant to be.

Like Pebble Beach one famous Sunday three years back, when McDowell emerged from a virtual war of attrition with the US Open Trophy and Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Tiger Woods and runner-up Gregory Havret, bobbing in his wake.

Memories of that unforgettable occasion by the Pacific Ocean were refreshed a month back when McDowell eclipsed reigning US Open Champion Webb Simpson in a play-off at the RBC Heritage on America's Atlantic shore.

When whistling winds rose at dawn on the final day at Harbour Town, it was plain to anyone who knows McDowell that there was only going to be one winner that afternoon.

Darren Clarke, McDowell's near neighbour in Portrush, believes this week's venue will suit him to a tee.

"After his recent wins at Hilton Head and in the Volvo Match Play, G-Mac's really looking forward to this week," said Clarke. "And Merion gives him a fantastic chance to add a second US Open to his CV."

That McDowell had to travel to the opposite side of the American continent to achieve his first PGA Tour victory since Pebble Beach perfectly illustrates the road all but a few truly exceptional individuals (McIlroy, for example) must travel to adjust to the heavy mantle of being a Major champion.

Picking up a silver cup or claret jug or donning a green jacket is more like a beginning than the end. McDowell admits it took him until well into the autumn of 2011 to grow accustomed to his new status and the personal expectations it stirred. His closest ally on the golf course and friend off it, uber caddie Ken Comboy, has watched McDowell grow into the role.

"No way he's going to enter a US Open in the next few years without licking his chops," said Comboy. "Over-expectation could kill anyone in that situation, but he's good at going there, setting daily goals and simply executing them."

Merion's ideal for G-Mac but as Comboy asserts, the strength of the character within stands more to his man than the gravity of the golf course.

IRELAND could not have asked for a more fitting first Major champion in 60 years than Padraig Harrington.

The Dubliner generously threw open the door after his mould-breaking victory at Carnoustie in 2007 and dispelled the notion that had taken firm hold at home and, to a lesser extent, in Europe that Major titles were somehow unattainable.

Harrington bared his soul and in sharing every conceivable aspect of his breakthrough win, showed super powers weren't a prerequisite for Major success – that ability, unstinting effort and, most important of all, resolve, the guy next door truly can prevail.

The message was simple – he who dares, wins.

The one point Harrington repeatedly stressed was how far out the elite golfer had to stick his neck to win. Had he lost that play-off to Sergio Garcia at Carnoustie, the Irishman revealed he'd "probably not go out his front door for six months and only speak to people through the letter box."

One needs only look at how the experience of losing that British Open and his defeat to Harrington on Sunday afternoon at the following year's PGA Championship broke Garcia, seemingly beyond repair.

In contrast, Harrington found the Holy Grail at Oakland Hills.

He may have broken the mould at Carnoustie and performed imperiously in victory at Royal Birkdale 12 months later. That famous afternoon of the "scary eyes" in Detroit, Harrington discovered a secret known only to the true legends of golf.

That if the spirit is strong, you don't even have to play well to prevail at the Majors.

Of course, this makes the madness of the past five years fiddling with his golf game all the more exasperating.

In the pursuit of illusory perfection, Harrington effectively denied himself more than a dozen opportunities to wield that greatest weapon in any Major champion's arsenal.

In more recent times, his putting has become as frail as one expects of great champions as they enter their forties. If that belly putter works, maybe Harrington will get another chance to make up for those wasted years.

DARREN CLARKE'S as easy to misread as one of Merion's putting surfaces – sure he's the chameleon of modern golf.

This ruddy, great Ulsterman is immensely popular with golf fans everywhere, but especially here in the United States, as a devil-may-care, froth-blowing broth of a man.

Behind this colourful exterior lies one of the most intense, driven and bedevilled golfers on the professional circuit. Far from being sated by his stunning victory at the 2011 British Open at age 42, Clarke appeared to fall into that age-old trap of trying to perform as he believed a Major champion should.

The passion never dies in men like this – it just becomes more debilitating. Of the 38 events Clarke has played since Sandwich, he's had just one top-10 finish, a share of eighth at last December's Australian PGA.

It's a measure of just how much he's lost touch with those four glorious days of 'unconscious' effort at Royal St George's that Clarke has made the weekend in just 13 of his 29 full-field tournaments since.

Injury, particularly the pulled hamstring which forced him to sit out April's US Masters, has combined this season with an ever-sterile putter to deny Clarke the opportunity to build momentum.

One might fear for any such player venturing back into the US Open arena for the first time in four years.

Yet in rising above the filthiest Friday in living memory at Wentworth to post a superlative second round 70 at the recent BMW PGA, Clarke showed this old dog still can take the hard road ... and maybe has found enough sang froid to ease up on himself.

Irish Independent

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