Friday 9 December 2016

Ireland’s unlikely Ryder immortals

Four of our solid Tour pros were transformed into global heroes by timeless Cup-clinching exploits

Published 28/09/2010 | 05:00

IRELAND and the Ryder Cup -- a story of a country punching way above its weight, especially since Europe joined with Britain and Ireland in 1979.

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The amalgamation of forces, suggested originally by Jack Nicklaus to make the biennial match more competitive, took a few years to make a major impact.

But once the Europeans won an epic contest at The Belfry in 1985, the Ryder Cup was transformed.

It became the most compelling television spectacle, watched by millions worldwide with every staging of the event.

The Ryder Cup also afforded Irish golfers unexpected chances to become international heroes despite the intense pressure this event generates.

Eamonn Darcy in 1987, Christy O'Connor Jnr at The Belfry in 1989, Philip Walton at Oak Hill in 1995, and Paul McGinley at The Belfry in 2002.

Model professionals, tournament winners all of them, but certainly they were unlikely heroes amidst the multi-Major winners that played in the European teams of those years.

But when the question was asked -- 'can you do it, dare you do it?' with the Cup on the line, Darcy, O'Connor, Walton and McGinley proved they were made of the right stuff indeed.

Reflecting on the Irish links with the Cup, Darcy said last week: "It's amazing that so much depended on Irish players at key moments -- and thank God we were all able to deliver. None of us crumbled under the pressure. It's marvellous to have been part of it all."

1987 - Eamon Darcy - Muirfield Village, Ohio

Captains:

Tony Jacklin (Europe); Jack Nicklaus (USA).

The date:

Sunday, September 27, 1987.

The situation:

An American fightback had reduced Europe's overnight lead of five points to just one point. Darcy was all square after 17 with Ben Crenshaw, having been three up at one stage.

On the 18th hole, Crenshaw was in trouble and holed for a bogey five. Darcy splashed out of a greenside bunker to five feet in three.

What happened next?

"I was conscious of how fast the putt was, so that was a good thing. I didn't have to hit it, I just had to get the line right, but any kind of tension in the stroke would have been a total disaster. I was ready for that putt, even with my quirky swing, everything I had done in my career, I was ready for that moment."

Darcy holed the putt. The Americans' momentum stalled fatally.

What did that performance mean to your career?

"It was a moment in history. We had never won the Ryder Cup in America. To have been fortunate enough to have been part of a great team with great players and then suddenly to be in a position to do something great, it doesn't happen too often in a guy's career."

Where is he now?

Darcy still plays on the European Seniors Tour and recently won the Southern Region IPGA championship at Powerscourt. He is also available for corporate days.

Did you know?

Technically, Seve Ballesteros clinched the match, but he always credited Darcy with turning the match in favour of Europe and Nicklaus said his putt was the crucial one that nailed the USA.

1989 - Christy O'Connor Jnr - The Belfry

Captains:

Tony Jacklin (Europe); Ray Floyd (USA).

The date:

Sunday, September 24, 1989.

The situation:

Another USA rearguard action from a 9-7 overnight deficit put them 10-9 ahead, but Jose Maria Olazabal, Ronan Rafferty and Mark James won their matches to give Europe a 12-10 lead.

O'Connor Jnr and Fred Couples came to the 18th tee all square.

What happened next?

"We both drove and Couples was about 60 yards ahead of me, but I had a gorgeous tight lie on the fairway. I knew this match really mattered when Tony Jacklin showed up with Bernard Gallacher. I hadn't seen the captain all day up to then.

"He came over and said, 'one more swing for Ireland, Christy', and I can tell you, it didn't really help. The pressure was already enormous. I sized it up. There was water in front of the green, the green was tiered, and swung the two-iron. I watched it all the way, low and straight, and it hit the green and rolled up to three feet. Fantastic.

"The roar went up. It must have all got to Couples because he blocked his second shot out to the right and ended up conceding the hole."

O'Connor's win put Europe in the driving seat again, and although the match finished tied at 14-14, Europe retained the trophy.

What did that performance mean to your career?

"A tournament win is always fantastic because you do it all on your own, but to play a Ryder Cup in a team of the 12 best players in Europe at that particular time has to rank up there with the best of my golfing memories."

Did you know?

O'Connor hit a fabulous two-iron on the 17th through the green, a hole he halved in par. "Nobody knows that because the TV didn't show the shot," he said.

Where is he now?

O'Connor plays the occasional Seniors Tour event, holds company days, has a course design business and even his own wine label from a vineyard in Alentejo, Portugal.

1995 - Philip Walton - Oak Hill, Rochester, New York

Captains:

Bernard Gallacher (Europe); Lanny Wadkins (USA).

The date:

Sunday, September 25, 1995.

The situation:

The match was tied at 13.5 points each. Walton was playing Jay Haas and was three up with three to play, but Haas fought back to be one down going up the 18th. Everything depended on this match.

What happened next?

Haas hooked his drive left into trees and took ages making his mind up about his second shot. Walton had driven down the right side.

Eventually Haas punched a shot out of the trees, while Walton hit a five-wood that finished short and left of the green in clingy rough.

"He hit his third shot long and I knew he wouldn't get up and down from there, but my ball was lying deep in the rough in a bank below the green.

"Woosie (Ian Woosnam) had been showing me how to play a shot out of the rough that week.

"The shot was to chop down on the back of the ball in that stuff and it would float out. If it went wrong you could leave it in there. It doesn't bear thinking about, but it came out perfect and rolled to 16 feet."

Haas hit his fourth shot five feet past the hole, and when Walton eased his putt to within tap-in distance, the match was over. Cue the European celebrations.

What did that performance mean to your career?

"In some ways Oak Hill 1995 probably wasn't the best thing that ever happened me. I played okay in 1996, but the real effect began to show in 1997.

"Something went from me. I felt it, but it's very hard to explain. Definitely that Ryder Cup did take something from me."

Did you know?

Walton told friends at the start of 1995 that he would win two tournaments and would be on the Ryder Cup team. He did, winning the Open Catalonia and the English Open, but he never dreamed he'd have such a key role in winning the Cup.

Where is he now?

Walton plays on the Irish PGA circuit, and is considering Seniors Tour golf when he turns 50 in 18 months' time. He also is available for corporate golf days.

2002 - Paul McGinley - The Belfry

Captains:

Sam Torrance (Europe); Curtis Strange (USA).

The date:

Sunday, September 29, 2002.

The situation:

Europe needed a half-point to reach the magic 14.5 that would give them victory. McGinley was playing Jim Furyk and the match was all square after the Irishman birdied the 17th.

What happened next?

Both men were on the 18th green in three, with Furyk giving the home crowd a heart attack by almost holing his bunker shot. The tough American holed his putt for a par four, and McGinley faced a 10-footer for the half that would decide the destination of the Cup. He never faltered, rolling it beautifully into the heart of the hole and Europe had regained the trophy.

What did that putt mean to your career?

"It made the world of difference to me because all of a sudden I was instantly recognisable, not just in Ireland but all over.

"I was identified with European success and I was identified as someone who brought a lot of joy and emotion, not only to Irish people but to people from all over Europe as well. It certainly raised my profile."

Did you know?

When McGinley was a student he part-funded his way around Southern California mini-tours by buying golf balls in golf outlets and selling them to team-mates on the University of San Diego team.

Where is he now?

Still active on the European Tour, but you'll find him c/o European Ryder Cup Team Room, Celtic Manor, Wales this week!

Irish Independent

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