Wednesday 17 January 2018

Dermot Gilleece: Shane Lowry has the pedigree to become Europe's next hero

David Feherty in 1996, during the Murphy's Irish Open
David Feherty in 1996, during the Murphy's Irish Open

Dermot Gilleece

When it was all over, David Feherty experienced "a very odd sensation, ranging from the extremes of euphoria to utter desolation." And the Ryder Cup seems to have lost none of its remarkable appeal, judging by the focus on next year's staging at Hazeltine National, for which qualifying has begun in this weekend's Russian Open in Moscow.

Feherty, who has surprisingly parted company with the CBS Network after 19 years as one of America's leading pundits, made a memorable appearance in the 1991 matches at Kiawah Island, crowned by a singles win over Payne Stewart.

"I was to learn that the Ryder Cup is institutionalised tribalism on a grand scale," he reflected. "It's life and death, delight and devastation, every extreme you care to imagine. And in my experience as a player on both sides of the Atlantic, the Europeans are far better equipped to handle its very special pressures."

For the 19 Irishmen to have played in the biennial showpiece so far, a very significant shift took place over the last 27 years. Of the eight newcomers during that period, all but Feherty had been elite amateurs, which would suggest that Shane Lowry possesses the perfect credentials this time around.

Back at Brookline in 1999, the sight of Pádraig Harrington as a potential match-winner at number seven in the singles order prompted an English scribe to remark: "There always seems to be an Irishman in a key role." As it happened, a top-of-the-order collapse and a most improbable 50-footer from Justin Leonard on the 17th rudely scuppered European hopes.

Yet it is undoubtedly true that the Irish have played key roles in Europe's ascendancy, from Eamonn Darcy in 1987 to Christy O'Connor Jnr two years later, followed by Philip Walton in 1995 and Paul McGinley in 2002. More recently, we have thrilled to the competitive steel of Graeme McDowell against the hapless Hunter Mahan in 2010 and again at Gleneagles last September, when Jordan Spieth became the Ulsterman's latest victim.

Irrespective of playing strength at Hazeltine, however, the Irish presence will be heightened significantly by Darren Clarke as team captain, especially against the backdrop of McGinley's remarkable leadership at Gleneagles.

Among his many challenges, Clarke will be expected to advise his players on how to handle a much-changed layout from the PGA Championships of 2002 and 2009. The PGA's Kerry Haigh explained the thinking behind these changes, designed specifically for the Ryder Cup. And when I suggested comparisons with 2006 at The K Club, where the first eight holes on either nine were switched, he insisted the Hazeltine adjustments were far less dramatic.

As it happens, an outward eight will be made up of holes one to four and 14 to 17, while an inward eight will comprise holes 10 to 13 and five to eight; the status of the ninth and 18th, which run parallel, has yet to be determined. "The reasons for the switch are for spectator convenience and improved viewing on the revised closing holes," said Haigh, who is much admired by Rory McIlroy as the PGA's expert on course set-up.

Haigh went on to predict greater excitement being generated by the 15th (original 6th) hole as a short par four with a pond fronting the green; the 16th (7th) becomes a reachable par five, while the short 17th (8th) has one of the smallest greens on the course. "It will also mean less walking from green to tee for the players on the back nine holes," he added.

In anticipation of rapidly fading daylight, Haigh further pointed out that having the finishing holes closer to the spectator exit should facilitate crowd dispersal at the end of play both on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Meanwhile, it will be especially interesting to see if Clarke manages to embellish qualities which made him perfect Ryder Cup material in the modern era when first capped at Valderrama in 1997. Eight years previously, he won the Willie Gill Award as the country's leading amateur, and retained the trophy in 1990 before joining paid ranks.

The next dominant amateur was Harrington, the Willie Gill Award winner in 1994 and '95, and McIlroy did likewise in 2005 and '06. Though Lowry never managed to secure the amateur order of merit, he was runner-up in 2007 and '08 before surpassing anything his predecessors had done by capturing the 2009 Irish Open at Baltray.

In the same vein, McDowell was runner-up to Noel Fox in 2000 when Irish appearances were limited by his attendance at the University of Alabama. And an ever greater curtailment of his schedule left him ninth behind Stephen Browne in 2001.

Ireland's remaining Ryder Cup newcomers going back to 1989 were Ronan Rafferty, McGinley and Walton, all of whom were Close champions and Walker Cup representatives. So, there was no doubting their pedigree among the elite of the amateur game.

While Irish qualifiers have coped with varying degrees of difficulty over the years, none had to battle harder within the modern system than Darcy for his place in the sun in September 1987. With three wild cards that year - Jose-Maria Olazabal, Sandy Lyle and Ken Brown - he clung precariously to the ninth qualifying position for more than 10 weeks, having put himself into contention by capturing the Belgian Open at Royal Waterloo on June 20.

From there, results in his next eight events, taking in the climactic German Open in Frankfurt on August 27 to 30, were: T35th, T9th, T17th, T6th, T56th, missed cut, T23rd and T22nd. And when his chance eventually came, he grabbed it with both hands.

In a desperate attempt at boosting American victory chances from a five-point deficit overnight, 20,000 star-spangled banners were handed out to spectators coming through the gates on the final day at Muirfield Village. During a promising afternoon, however, Darcy dealt them a crushing blow.

It is now part of Ryder Cup lore how the Irishman's opponent, Ben Crenshaw, was forced to use a one iron or the leading edge of his sandwedge on the greens, having smashed his putter in anger after three-putting the sixth. Eventually, it all came down to a slippery five-footer for Darcy on the 18th, downhill and breaking left to right.

Standing over the most crucial putt of his career, he muttered to himself through clenched teeth: "Don't f***ing miss". And he didn't. Four matches later, the inimitable Seve Ballesteros at number 10 delivered the decisive point with a 2&1 win over Curtis Strange.

Against such a background, it's not difficult to imagine further Irish heroics on the celebrated parkland of Minnesota. With Lowry a particularly appealing candidate.

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