The absence of stiff competition from GAA has helped Ulster develop the talent to punch above its weight
Published 24/05/2011 | 05:00
Irish golf's Northern lights are burning so brightly right now, they're leaving the rest of our island in the shade. The astonishing litany of success by Ulster golfers continued at the weekend as Belfast's Michael Hoey became the second Northern Irish golfer in seven days to win on the European Tour.
Hoey (32) followed up on Darren Clarke's long-awaited victory in Mallorca by finishing first in the Madeira Islands Open on Sunday.
It's the enigmatic but highly-talented Belfast golfer's second European Tour title. Including three wins on the Challenge Tour, he's lifted five titles in a nine-year career which has yielded €980,000 in prize money.
As Hoey sealed the deal at Porto Santo, Paul Cutler from Castlerock underlined his domination of the Irish domestic circuit in Shannon by adding the Irish Close Championship to the West of Ireland crown he won last month.
There are gifted young golfers from other parts of the country -- Paul Dunne of Greystones, Rathsallagh's Jack Hume and Jeff Hopkins of Skerries are just three teenagers with an especially bright future.
Yet Cutler (22) and his fellow Ulstermen, Alan Dunbar of Rathmore and Ballymena's Dermot McElroy (18) are Ireland's leading contenders in the race for places on the home team at September's Walker Cup in Royal Aberdeen.
Lest we forget, Northern Ireland's world No 5 Graeme McDowell and No 6 Rory McIlory were the only two Irish players to make the select field at the Volvo World Match Play. They illuminated the Costa with their first head-on collision as professionals last Saturday morning, McDowell winning 3&2.
As Padraig Harrington slipped ever lower on the world ladder to No 48 yesterday and is laid up by injury for the next fortnight, G-Mac and Wee-Mac will soon be the only two Irish golfers inside golf's elite top-50.
McIlroy last month went within a few missed putts of winning the Green Jacket at Augusta and few would bet their house against the Holywood youngster picking up his first Major title this summer.
It's staggering that Northern Ireland, with a population of just 1.76 million, boasts two of the world's top-six golfers and manages to punch so incredibly far above its weight on the main tours around the world and the elite amateur stage at home.
Considering the South's population of 4.47 million is two and a half times greater and that Ulster boasts only 123 of the 430 golf clubs registered with the GUI, the relative success of Northern golfers in the professional arena is astonishing.
For example, since the dawn of the new century, Irish golfers have won 48 times on the leading professional tours, a figure that does not include 10 victories on the senior circuits in Europe and the US and a dozen wins on the Challenge Tour.
Of those 48, precisely half, or 24 each, have been won by players from either side of the border. However, subtract Harrington's phenomenal haul of 18 tournament victories and just six have been achieved by five other golfers from the South since 2000 -- Paul McGinley (2), Peter Lawrie, Damien McGrane, Des Smyth and Shane Lowry.
Since Harrington went into decline in the wake of his third Major victory in August 2008, just two of 12 Irish winners on Tour were players from the South -- Lowry, as an amateur at the 2009 Irish Open, and Harrington himself in Malaysia last October.
As golf is an all-island sport administered by the Golfing Union of Ireland, the same coaching and development structures are available to all four provinces. So what has helped make Clarke, McDowell, Hoey, McIlroy, Cutler and their Northern peers collectively more competitive?
Few are better placed than GUI national coaching director Neil Manchip to answer this perplexing question. A proud Scot, Manchip arrived on this island in 1992 to train under Kevin Whitson at Royal Co Down. He assumed his current position with the Union in 2005.
He believes a number of factors have helped develop "an excellent golf culture in Northern Ireland", which helps give their youngsters a head start. "I just think it's the competitive atmosphere they're brought up in," he says. "When I first arrived in Northern Ireland, I couldn't believe how many club competitions there were for all handicaps and at all age levels.
"It was a lot different than in Scotland. Everyone in the club had a competition to play, whereas in Scotland that really only applied to the best in the club. Club golf and competitive golf is a big thing up there (even) compared to down here."
In the absence of really stiff competition from the GAA in certain areas, he believes there "probably are more golfers overall" in Ulster and, historically at least, our Northern cousins "have easier access to clubs".
"Look at the enormous amount of new clubs in the Republic in recent years. There have been very few new clubs in the North by comparison. So most clubs in Northern Ireland are just normal golf clubs, in which it's easier for kids to play.
"A lot of it is about demographics and competition from other games, GAA, rugby or whatever," Manchip adds. "Which means a lot more kids are playing golf up North.
"The coaches in Munster will tell you it's so hard to get kids to concentrate on golf because the Gaelic games are so strong.
"So often, it's hard for them to play golf consistently throughout the year. Often they'll play it just for a couple of months in the summer.
"Take the kids we have training with the National U-16s. Two of them play hurling to a high level and you'd rarely find that with guys in the North. They just play golf."
Like McDowell and McIlroy, Hoey is typical of the gifted young Ulster golfer. He was born, bred and buttered in the sport and featured on the same Walker Cup side with G-Mac and Luke Donald which, in 2001 at Sea Island, became the first GB&I team to retain the famous trophy.
McDowell and Donald have achieved mega-stardom in golf.
Hoey certainly has the raw talent to follow them into the higher echelons of the world game and further cement Ulster's reputation as a prolific breeding ground for great champions.