Thursday 20 July 2017

Irish dual stars will soon face Olympic-sized dilemma

Dermot Gilleece

On being asked if he had teenage aspirations of becoming a champion golfer, Pádraig Harrington famously replied that his only ambition was to be better than his brothers. As it happens, sibling solidarity, not rivalry, will be in focus in the $7.5m World Cup of Golf, which begins at Mission Hills GC, China on Thursday.

The defending champions for the biennial event are the Molinaris, Francesco and Edoardo, who made a brotherly breakthrough by bringing the 2009 title to Italy for the first time. Now, apart from Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, the runners-up on that occasion, they will have to contend with Colombia's Camilo and Manuel Villegas and the Portuguese pair of Ricardo and Hugo Santos among the 28 teams.

McIlroy surprised nobody last July when, as Ireland's top-ranked player, he named McDowell for a repeat World Cup challenge. With the option of choosing Harrington or the newly-crowned Open champion, Darren Clarke, he remained loyal to his pal and Ryder Cup partner from Celtic Manor. The 22-year-old pointed to McDowell's superior world ranking to the other pair.

Their involvement could be seen internationally as needlessly controversial, however, given they both happen to hail from the northern part of this island. When identifying Irish players, the European Tour for reasons best known to themselves, insist on the political designation of Northern Ireland or Republic of Ireland, accompanied by the red hand or tricolour flag, even though they accept that this country is united in golf. And to further confuse the issue, they list players from 'England', 'Scotland' and 'Wales', rather than their political designation which is Great Britain. Yet for the World Cup, which the Tour administers, McIlroy and McDowell represent Ireland.

"I honestly can't remember any policy decision on this," was the reaction of Ken Schofield, who was executive director of the Tour from its foundation until his retirement seven years ago. "It has always been accepted that Ireland played as one in golf, though I recall a problem between John O'Leary and David Feherty prior to the inaugural Dunhill Cup in 1985."

Schofield went on to explain that, happily, it had nothing to do with politics. "The qualification rules were somewhat vague at the time and the players disagreed as to whether the money list took precedence over world rankings," he said. "As it turned out, David got the nod and John graciously accepted the decision."

Historically, the British PGA had a problem with the designation of Irish professionals. For instance, they categorised Harry Bradshaw as an 'overseas' player at the time of his runner-up finish to Bobby Locke in the 1949 Open, which meant he wasn't eligible for Ryder Cup selection that year. And the same applied in 1951. It was only for the 1953 matches that the rule was changed and The Brad eventually made an overdue debut at Wentworth in what was effectively the first British and Irish Ryder Cup team. But it was some years later before the team was so named, officially.

Though I believe the European Tour designation is divisive, there will be absolutely no problem this week in China, where we can be sure the best interests of the game, north and south of the Border, will be served.

But what's going to happen when golf returns to the Olympic Games in 2016? Then, we will be looking simply at British and Republic of Ireland teams from these islands. And in a matter which would never have been contemplated by the Good Friday Agreement, we can expect some fun and games when dually-qualified candidates make their choice.

Meanwhile, the teams this week include a potentially formidable South Africa, represented by current US Masters champion, Charl Schwartzel, and the 2010 Open champion, Louis Oosthuizen; and Germany, with Martin Kaymer and Alex Cejka together for a fourth time. Matt Kuchar and Gary Woodland represent the US and England have a strong pairing in close friends, Ian Poulter and Justin Rose.

At this distance, however, it is brothers who capture the imagination. "Not only is it an honour to represent Colombia, but it will be a thrill to be able to do it as a team with my brother, Manny," said the senior Villegas. "We want to make our country and our family proud."

Portugal's Ricardo Santos, prominent on the European Challenge Tour, made his World Cup debut in 2008 when finishing a very creditable tied 13th with partner, Tiago Cruz. Now, he and his brother Hugo revive memories of perhaps the most illustrious golfing brothers from the Iberian Peninsula.

They were Spain's Miguel brothers, Angel and Sebastian, who made a total of 20 appearances for their country, five times in each other's company. One of those occasions was the 1958 staging in Mexico City where, after they had finished runners-up to Ireland's Bradshaw and Christy O'Connor, Angel proceeded to beat The Brad in a play-off for the individual title.

Then, of course, it was a 72-hole strokeplay event which eventually had to be abandoned because of six-hour rounds. Under a changed format, McIlroy and McDowell opened with a stunning, better-ball 58 two years ago but lost by a shot to the latin duo who played as magically as they sounded.

They will be expecting to do better this time. And, to borrow the immortal words of Henry Longhurst, who cares what part of Ireland they come from.

dgilleece@independent.ie

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