Monday 24 July 2017

'It was the greatest round ever played' - Top 10 moments in the history of the Irish Open

Dermot Gilleece

The Irish Open returns this weekend at Portstewart. Here are the Top 10 highlights from 90 years of the event.

1. George Duncan’s closing 74 for victory in the inaugural Irish Open at Portmarnock in 1927 was described by the great J H Taylor as “one of, or perhaps even the greatest round that has ever been played.”

Apparently the weather was simply appalling.

As it happened, the Scot’s remarkable exploits were witnessed by five-year-old Joe Carr, who was reared in the clubhouse as the caretaker’s adopted son. Going into the final round, Duncan (pictured) was 11 strokes adrift of his Wentworth assistant, Jack Smith, in conditions so hostile that a big catering marquee was wrenched from its moorings and torn apart.

Carr later recalled seeing his adoptive mother gathering up all the brown paper she could find so that Duncan could wrap it around his body as protection against the elements. With an aggregate of 312, he beat second-placed Henry Cotton by a stroke.

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2. As an 18-year-old amateur anxious to learn his craft in elevated company, Bobby Locke left his native South Africa for Europe in the summer of 1936. Among his tournament assignments was the Irish Open at Royal Dublin.

There, he compiled an impressive aggregate of 287 to capture the amateur medal. In fact he finished only six strokes behind the winner, Reg Whitcombe of Parkstone, whose younger brother, Ernest, had won the title at Royal County Down the previous year.

Locke was especially remembered among locals for a fascinating incident on the par-three 12th. With no sight of his ball as he approached the green, the South African was convinced he had scored a hole in one, only to discover the ball lodged, miraculously, in the fabric of the flagstick.

On unfurling the material, the ball dropped down, though sadly for Locke, not into the hole. So he had to settle for a birdie. Ten years later, in his first season as a professional, he returned to the Irish Open at Portmarnock, finishing second to Fred Daly.

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Bobby Locke

3. The close bond forged between Harry Bradshaw and Bobby Locke, his Open Championship conqueror of 1949, gained rich emphasis in the Irish Open at Belvoir Park the following week. Though Bradshaw’s one-stroke victory over the South African hardly compensated for the crushing disappointment of losing a play-off at Royal St George’s, it still represented a welcome change of fortune.

In the event, Locke retained such regard for him that he made a point of showing Bradshaw the site of James Lindsay and Co in Donegall Place, Belfast, where the South African’s father served his apprenticeship as an outfitter.

Charles James Locke, also known as Bobby, was born in the Lisburn Road area and later emigrated to South Africa, where he became the driving force behind his son’s development as a four-time Open champion. 

4. Woodbrook became the scene of a memorable milestone for golf in this country when the Irish Open was revived there in 1975, after a lapse of 22 years. It was when Christy O’Connor Snr, for whom the venue had delivered so much success, made way for his nephew and one-time assistant, Christy Jnr.

For the first significant win of his career, Junior beat an elite field which included the newly crowned Open Champion, Tom Watson, who was tied 13th. It proved to be a fine Irish occasion which, typically, contained a story about Himself, despite his relatively modest finish of tied 28th.

In the course of a closing 71, Senior recorded a hole-in-one on the short 17th, though it wasn’t all good news, given that he had to share the £1,000 jackpot with Scotland’s John McTear, who also had an ace there. For O’Connor, his nine-iron pitched the ball right into the cup, whereas the Scot had to endure a few tantalising bounces before jumping with delight.

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Christy O’Connor Snr

5. When Joe Flanagan became tournament director of the Irish Open in the 1980s, he soon learned a profound truth. “If you had Seve [Ballesteros],” he remarked, “you felt you had the makings of a successful event.”

With four top-five finishes in five years from 1976, the mercurial Spaniard was an absentee in 1981 and ’82 over appearance fees. He returned with typical enthusiasm, however, at Royal Dublin in 1983, where a free clinic on the Tuesday included hitting a driver off his knees onto the green at the 255-yard 16th.

In sustained sunshine, record crowds thrilled to a marvellous climax in which Ballesteros and Brian Barnes fought neck and neck, five holes from the finish. Almost to order, however, the 26-year-old Spaniard broke clear when Barnes three-putted the 17th, and went on to take the title by two strokes by sinking a 20-footer for a birdie on the last.

Flanagan’s words received further endorsement when Ballesteros won again at Royal Dublin in 1985 and became the first three-time winner of the title at Portmarnock a year later.  

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Seve celebrates after winning the Irish Open in 1983

6. In a remarkable career encompassing five decades, Bernhard Langer is the only player to have captured the Irish Open at three different venues. His first win was at Royal Dublin by a four-stroke margin in 1984 but the next was at Portmarnock three years later when a record-breaking effort delivered a crushing 10-stroke victory over Sandy Lyle in second place. By comparison, his one-stroke Mount Juliet victory of 1994 was almost run-of-the-mill.

Portmarnock ’87 was a truly breathtaking performance. With rounds of 67, 68, 66 and 68, Langer compiled an aggregate of 269 on a golf course measuring 7,102 yards. A nine-stroke lead over an elite field after 54 holes, could have reduced his final round to a gentle stroll in delightful sunshine, but being Langer, his foot remained pressed firmly to the floor, to the delight of 15,000 spectators.

Six weeks previously, he also broke 70 in all four rounds of the PGA Championship at Wentworth, for an aggregate of 270 which beat the record for the West Course set by Christy O’Connor Snr when capturing the Daks Tournament of 1959.

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Bernhard Langer

7. Though he never won the title, Philip Walton made a significant contribution to Irish Open thrills over the years. As relatively recently as the 2000 staging at Ballybunion, two sparkling rounds of 67 left him in a challenging sixth position at the half-way stage, before an eventual tenth-place finish.

Most memorable, however, was a sunny Sunday in June 1989, when thousands chased over Portmarnock’s bone-hard turf to catch a sight of his play-off with Ian Woosnam for the title. The Welshman had arrived there after a dash on Concorde from finishing runner-up to Curtis Strange in a rain-soaked US Open at Oak Hill the previous weekend.

A 10-under-par aggregate of 278 had been good enough to secure Woosnam the Irish Open title the previous year. This time, however, it meant a play-off with Walton down the 18th where, to the crushing disappointment of home supporters, Woosnam retained the title by sinking a 10-foot birdie putt.

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Philip Walton at the Irish Open in 2000

8. David Frost earned widespread commendation for grace under pressure after a remarkable finale to his opening round at Mount Juliet in 1993. Standing on the tee at the demanding 475-yard 18th, he was four under par for the tournament. Twenty minutes later he was signing for a 74, having closed with an unimaginable 10.      

After pulling his drive into water down the left, Frost incurred an additional two-stroke penalty for declining to take complete relief. Believing he couldn’t play his recovery shot while standing within the margin of the hazard, he lifted the ball and re-dropped it, thereby incurring a two-stroke penalty under Rule 18 for lifting a ball in play and failing to replace it. Then came a similarly ruinous hook back into the water.

The South African rallied, however, for rounds of 69, 68, 68 to claim third place with an admirable total of 279. This was only three strokes behind the winner, Nick Faldo, who beat Jose Maria Olazabal in a play-off to complete a hat-trick of titles.

9. John O’Leary variously described his 1982 Portmarnock triumph as “a pain in the neck to those who came after me” and “a huge thing in my life”. Either way, he was happy to be at Adare Manor on Sunday May 20, 2007, to see a 25-year gap bridged by Pádraig Harrington as a home winner of the title.

Though Harrington described the pressure as greater “than probably any event”, he responded to the challenge by claiming the lead from the halfway stage. And with a three-stroke lead on the Saturday evening, he was within sight of victory in one of golf’s most charming settings.

A closing 68 from Welshman Bradley Dredge, however, forced a play-off down the treacherous, par-five 18th where the manor house provides a stunning back-drop. There, in resolute mood, Harrington held his nerve for a winning par and a breakthrough that would lead ultimately to Open Championship delight at Carnoustie, two months later.

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10. Rory McIlroy earned the accolade of Shot of the Year when a stunning five-wood to five feet set up an eagle finish to his Irish Open triumph at The K Club last year. Some would argue, however, that there was greater merit in another fairway-wood shot, two holes previously.

In an apparent struggle to achieve dominance from a stroke down playing the par-five 16th, McIlroy faced a treacherous second shot of 250 yards to the island green in the River Liffey. Where most competitors were laying up so as to avoid a six, the Holywood star hit a most glorious three wood safely onto the dangerously shallow green for a two-putt birdie.

In fact the player himself later acknowledged it as a tougher shot than the one on 18. Either way, it could be claimed with some confidence that in a glittering history of tournament golf at this venue, nobody had played those two holes better in the same round.

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