Rich tradition getting richer
Life right now is pretty good for Irish golfers on tour, says Dermot Gilleece
A great European adventure began in earnest for professionals from this island in 1946, when Fred Daly beat Bobby Locke for the Irish Open title at Portmarnock. Now, 64 years on, another native of Portrush, Graeme McDowell, has emulated his great predecessor by becoming only the fourth Irishman to secure three international tour victories in a given season.
Ronan Rafferty did so in 1989 when capturing the Order of Merit but, almost predictably, the other member of this elite quartet, Christy O'Connor Snr, did it twice, in 1959 and 1964. And since 1922, when Greenore's Pat O'Hare made the breakthrough of winning the North and South Open at Pinehurst, Irishmen have won a total of 160 significant professional titles, encompassing all five continents.
Where financial rewards were concerned, some had reason to feel they were born at the wrong time. And Peter Lawrie is acutely aware of this at the end of his best-ever season on tour.
When sceptical school pals questioned his chances of getting a decent living from golf, Lawrie would round on them and declare: "I'll make three million with this (right) hand and two million with the other."
At 36 and arguably at the peak of his powers, he's well on the way to reaching that seemingly grandiose goal. With €845,718 from 32 tournaments, he has claimed 36th place on the Road to Dubai, bringing his career earnings to €4,071,275. Which doesn't include endorsements, headed by his attachment to Castleknock GC.
"The way my father worked to put me through school and keep me going in amateur golf taught me to be careful with my money," said Lawrie. "Coming up through the ranks and not getting on the tour straight away, I had to watch every penny when competing on the Challenge Tour, Mastercard Tour or wherever I happened to be."
So I suggested there could be no chance of comparisons with Tiger Woods, who has built himself a $50m home on Jupiter Island, Florida. Lawrie laughed. "At one stage, my home in Castleknock was worth more than €1 million," he said. "But not any more, though it is nice and comfortable and fully meets my needs.
"I'm acutely aware of the way people throughout the country are suffering, irrespective of how well they perform. Their wages and pensions are being cut and while house-prices have come down, mortgage repayments remain the same in a situation of negative equity. Looking at all of this, I feel very lucky that my career has essentially been recession-proof; that I'm in a sport which isn't shedding jobs.
"Even though individual sponsorship has gone down dramatically, we play for a lot of money on the golf course with performance-related rewards. And having Damien McGrane as my best friend on tour helps me keep a sense of perspective.
"When I was starting out, I met Damien in Switzerland on the Challenge Tour and we hit it off. Now we share a hotel room at tournaments, much to the amazement of some people. It's not a financial thing; we do it simply because we like each other's company.
"Out on tour for 30 weeks a year, it's nice to have somebody to chat to. We don't get in each other's way. If Damien's doing well I'm delighted. And I presume the same goes for him. And if one of us is down for whatever reason, we seem to be able to pull the other one along."
McGrane's 41st money-list position with earnings of €782,719 is second only to his 2008 season when he captured the Volvo China Open. In between himself and Lawrie is Gareth Maybin at 40th, an improvement of 13 places on last year, his first season on tour. So, the Irish are doing very well, even if McDowell failed to capture the Order of Merit.
In the process, they maintained a rich tradition like, for instance, their counterparts from 20 years ago. At the end of the 1990 season in which Ian Woosnam won the Order of Merit, the 10 leading Irishmen were: 5 Rafferty, 8 David Feherty, 20 Philip Walton, 21 Eamonn Darcy, 33 Des Smyth, 56 Christy O'Connor Jnr, 90 Jimmy Heggarty, 91 Stephen Hamill, 126 Martin Sludds, 188 Eoghan O'Connell.
The current representation should also be seen in the context of a sobering analysis by Peter McEvoy, a career amateur who has been a keen student of the professional game. McEvoy estimates that from the four home countries combined, an average of no more than two players will get on the main European Tour every year and stay there.
Still, taking this island as a golfing entity, it could be considered disappointing that with 83 victories since 1972, we are outstripped among European Tour winners by Sweden, who are relatively new to the process. As it happened, Robert Karlsson's victory in Dubai last weekend brought their total to 89, six more than Ireland's.
Yet we shouldn't be surprised. For instance, during a 13-month period encompassing the full 2006 season into January 2007, Swedish players had a remarkable 11 victories on the European Tour -- three from Henrik Stenson, three from Johan Edfors, two from Niclas Fasth, two from Karlsson and one from Peter Hedblom. Imagine the reaction if Irish players were achieving success on that scale.
Significantly, there were 21 fully exempt Swedes on Tour at that stage, as opposed to Ireland's relatively thin representation of seven. Since then, however, Ireland have added four Major titles -- three from Pádraig Harrington and last June's US Open from McDowell -- to Daly's Open of 1947, making five in all.
Sweden, on the other hand, are still awaiting a Major breakthrough. Which reminds me of conversations I had with Jan Blomqvist, Sweden's first national golf coach and sadly no longer with us. As a key figure behind his nation's golfing explosion of the 1980s, Blomqvist had tremendous admiration for the rich tradition of Irish golf, personified by legendary figures such as Daly, O'Connor and Joe Carr. But he would remark sadly: "That is the one key ingredient our players are missing."
On the Saturday in Dubai, Lawrie played with Ernie Els who infamously talked about getting the wheelbarrow out at this time of year for the cash being thrown at him in lucrative end-of-season events. "Sure, the top echelon of players do a lot of travelling around now, making lots of money away from the official schedule," said Lawrie.
"That's their way and, to be honest, I wish I was doing the same. I'd love to be looking at an invitation to Sun City or to Tiger's tournament, or the Shark Shootout or the Royal Trophy in January. Instead, I have the next seven weeks off before going to Abu Dhabi for my first event of the New Year."
In the meantime, he retains an insecurity more associated with actors. Indeed Lawrie would argue that job security is as fragile in both crafts. When I told him that Vijay Singh, in the midst of all his success, wondered at the start of a new season if he would ever win again, he responded: "I can fully understand those feelings. And it doesn't get any easier with the passing years. In that opening tournament, my dominant thought is to make enough money to retain my card as quickly as possible.
"Even with the exemption I got from winning the Spanish two years ago, I felt the same way. I don't believe the anxiety will ever leave me. I don't believe I will ever feel secure. I think I will always be conscious of having to maximise the opportunities that will come my way through any given season. What the golf course and the tournament gives you. And to try and have my card virtually secured by April or May."
Yet for all that, Lawrie admits to wanting for nothing, with his wife Philippa and daughters Jessica (5), Amelia Jane (3) and one-year-old Elizabeth, who may anticipate charming but not over-lavish gifts from Santa. With a Volvo XC90 as a family car and a Volkswagen Golf as a runaround, the Lawries live a comfortable, simple life.
As it happens, life is generally pretty good right now for the Irish on tour. Memories come to mind of the Irish Open at Killarney last July, when Rory McIlroy slipped away from a barbeque on the Tuesday to take a clearly dazzled Shane Lowry for a spin in his decidedly sporty Audi R8. And of Darren Clarke's rather special Range Rover parked in its designated spot outside the clubhouse.
The current crop are the beneficiaries of a rich tradition which Sweden's Blomqvist so envied. They have been able to plot a highly productive route on a trail blazed by Daly, Harry Bradshaw and O'Connor. And despite the anxiety some of them may feel about retaining their playing privileges, there is always the security of being part of an enduring brand.