Ireland's seven samurai head for Hoylake with eyes on Claret Jug
IT'S just eight years since The Open last visited Royal Liverpool but it was an entirely different age in Irish golf. That week, as we looked back over 59 impoverished years at the Majors to the 1947 Open at Hoylake and Portrush man Fred Daly's solitary victory for Ireland, few dared even dream of the bounties that lay just around the corner.
It really felt back then as if Irish golfers were destined to fill the minor placings in golf's greatest events.
For the most part, Major champions were held in awe.
An inferiority complex developed down decades starved of success, convinced us Irish they were a breed apart, made of different stuff.
It took a phenomenal leap of faith by Padraig Harrington at Carnoustie 12 months later to shatter that myth.
Then the heavens parted and six more Major trophies came our way in the space of six years.
This week, four Major winners – Harrington, Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy – feature among seven Irish samurai who'll step confidently into the oldest and greatest arena of them all at Hoylake.
If Shane Lowry or Michael Hoey have yet to place a hand on the Claret Jug, they no longer have any reason to think they can't.
While amateur Paul Dunne, just 21 and playing in his first Open Championship this week, is one of a generation of young players from this island who grew up knowing that Major winners actually walked the same fairways and graduated through the same GUI Championships as him.
Few in Irish golf have cause to get dewy-eyed looking back to the good old days. Harrington sparked the dawn of a golden age at Carnoustie.
(World Rank: 8th. Odds: 11/1 Fav)
IT'S a long, long way from Muirfield to here! Rory McIlroy endured his darkest day at the Majors on Thursday at last year's Open, summing up his performance during a first round 79 as "braindead". This was the low point in a summer of discontent. Though recent Wentworth-winner McIlroy, 25, now appears to be in a better place with his game and his life, a worrying tendency to follow brilliant rounds, last Thursday's 64 at Royal Aberdeen for example, with horrors like Friday's 78 in a strong breeze, does not inspire confidence in his prospects at Hoylake. Still, the Holywood star is capable of winning by a street this week if the mood takes him and the putter works.
(World rank: 17. Odds: 25/1)
JUST one top 10, a share of fifth two years ago behind Ernie Els at Lytham, is a relatively poor return from 10 appearances at The Open for a player of McDowell's calibre and Portrush heritage. However, as he came from eight behind to win in France last Sunday week, GMac looked ready to set that record straight and pick up a second Major title. Remember, he secured a similar morale-boosting win in Wales a fortnight before his 2010 US Open success at Pebble Beach. McDowell knows Hoylake. He shot 66 here to take the first round lead at the 2006 Open before succumbing to fatigue in his ninth event in 11 weeks and 20th of a hectic season. This time, he's well rested and, after Paris, putting with authority.
(World Rank: 249th. Odds: 66/1)
HAVING brilliantly blazed a trail for Ireland and indeed Europe at the Majors with three mesmeric victories in 13 months, Harrington has endured a harrowing form slump, failing to win on the US or European Tours since August 2008. After back-to-back victories at Carnoustie in 2007 and Royal Birkdale in 2008, Harrington has broken par just twice in 16 rounds at five Open Championships. Though finding it hard just to make the cut these days, Harrington, 42, has one great advantage at any Major. If he gets himself into the reckoning, he knows he can deliver. Getting there is the problem.
(World Rank: 73rd. Odds: 100/1)
IT'S been a year of hard knocks for Lowry with one high, a lucrative runner-up finish to Rory McIlroy in the showpiece BMW PGA. Exasperatingly, the Clara man missed the cut by one at the US Open but that stinging experience should help sharpen his focus this week. Lowry, 27, knows how to play by the seaside, as he proved at Baltray in 2009 by winning the Irish Open as an amateur. This is his seventh Major and he's made the cut in both British Opens he played. His game's in decent shape, judging by his showing at Royal Aberdeen. This guy will win an Open someday but may still have time to serve at the Majors.
(World Rank: 162nd. Odds: 125/1)
THE highlight of Hoey's five wins on the European Tour came at the 2011 Dunhill Links, when the Ballymoney man birdied three out of the last four at St Andrews to pip Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell. Recent top 10s at the Irish Open and in France, suggest his form is good and Hoey's drawing confidence from his consistency this year. Still, this is only his fifth Major and third in 12 years as a pro and Hoey, 35, has yet to play on the weekend at a Grand Slam event. Mind you, he was riding high after two rounds at the 2012 PGA at Kiawah when on Friday evening he discovered an obscure breach of the rules, nobly owned up and disqualified himself.
(World rank: 379TH. Odds: 150/1)
ALL of golf learned at Royal St George's in 2011 never to say never about Darren Clarke at The Open – even in a year as bad as 2014, as the slimmed-down Ulsterman receives zero reward for Trojan work in the gym and on the practice ground. However, Clarke scrapped his way through only his fourth cut in 13 events last Friday at the Scottish Open, showing again that he's at his best when the going gets tough. Like Harrington, you suspect Clarke will thrive in his 23rd Open if it blows a hooley at Hoylake, even if he missed the cut here in 2006 after a calamitous 82 on Friday.
(World Rank (Am): 53. Odds: 400/1)
THESE are heady days for amateur Paul Dunne, 21, of Greystones. He followed up a splendid season at McDowell's alma mater, Alabama University (AUB) by beating US hotshot Robby Shelton to clinch victory for Europe in the Palmer Cup at Walton Heath, then delivered a phenomenal three-strokes win in Open Final Qualifying at the same venue. He later featured in Ireland's splendid European Team Championship campaign in Finland. Joining Rory McIlroy (2007), Joe Carr (1956 at Hoylake and 1958) and Jimmy Bruen (1939) in history by winning the Silver Medal as a leading amateur at The Open would cap it all.