The tee amigos
Ireland’s cluster of Major champions determined to harness explosion of interest and put Irish Open ‘back where it belongs’ as one of Europe’s top events
IRELAND'S Major champions are as different as the four seasons, but they'll share a common purpose today as they go to war on the shores of Lough Leane in the most eagerly anticipated Irish Open in history.
Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and triple Major-winner Padraig Harrington stand four-square in their determination to restore Irish golf's national championship to its former glory.
Up to 100,000 people are expected to cram the Killeen Course at Killarney Golf and Fishing Club between today and Sunday's tournament climax, many of them inspired by the heart-warming recent success of 42-year-old Clarke at the British Open and that mindblowing victory by McIlroy (22) in last month's US Open at Congressional.
Perhaps 2010 US Open champion McDowell put it best when he said: "It's going to be very, very exciting to have so many people coming to the Irish Open.
"It's very tough to get your head around the fact that three Irishmen have won Majors in the past 13 months, you almost end up pinching yourself. People are excited about it and that's why they are going to come and support the Irish players.
"Hopefully it'll give the tournament the boost it needs to attract a prospective sponsor and put it back on the map where it belongs as one of the premier events on the European Tour. I think the strength of Irish golf can help that happen this week."
In all, there are 28 Irish players in the field, including four of the island's top amateurs, and there's no shortage of realistic contenders among them, from in-form Dubliner Peter Lawrie to Clara's Shane Lowry, the winner of this title in stunning fashion at Baltray in 2009.
Yet all eyes will be drawn to Ireland's Major-winners, with the confidence of one Northern Irish punter who yesterday put £50,000 on McIlroy to win at 4/1 with William Hill, reflecting the mood on the ground in Killarney.
This big-spending punter will collect £250,000 should McIlroy finish first, which is more than the €250,000 the Holywood star will earn should he emulate American Hubert Green's feat in 1977 of winning the US and Irish Opens in the same season.
If Clarke is high on adrenalin after his heady success at Sandwich, his confession that he "probably burnt the candle a little too much at both ends" during his four-day 'hooley' after the Open -- he spent two days in bed over the weekend with a cold and felt a little run-down -- hardly inspired confidence in his prospects.
Though Clarke admits he must "sit down and reassess" his career goals after fulfilling his lifetime ambition at the Open, the serenity he showed in victory at Royal St George's and the confidence it brings still makes a threat of this gifted ball-striker in any company.
The contrast between Clarke's win in what many assumed to be the twilight of his career and McIlroy's landslide at Congressional at the dawn of his, would appear to make them polar opposites.
Indeed, all four of Ireland's Major-winners approach this week's event from different perspectives, though McDowell is struck more by the similarities between Clarke and McIlroy.
"Rory and Darren are very talented and I don't think I was blessed with the same gifts -- I'm the grinder, if you like, and have had to work hard for what I've achieved in the game," he said.
"Rory's like a young Darren, in many ways. Their personality traits are very similar both on and off the course. They're kind of flash and like the finer things in life, but they are also extremely talented."
Comparisons can also be drawn between McDowell and Ireland's greatest ever grinder, Padraig Harrington, especially as the Portrush man tries to discard the immense weight of personal expectation which is drawn out of last season's barnstorming success on the world circuit.
"My expectation levels have been quite inflated this year and this can unduly affect things on the golf course," said McDowell. "No doubt, I've had three or four very uncharacteristic rounds (at Bay Hill, Sawgrass, Celtic Manor and Friday's 77 at the Open) but it was born out of wanting it too much."
As Clarke showed in Sandwich, should McDowell or Harrington throw off that burden this week, either man can spark a new beginning for himself, as well as for the Irish Open.