Tuesday 20 August 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'You read it here first - golf in Ireland really is the people's game'

Just like Dublin GAA has put down stronger suburban roots, golf has massively broadened its appeal. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Just like Dublin GAA has put down stronger suburban roots, golf has massively broadened its appeal. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Shane Lowry's glorious Open victory brings to 10 the number of Majors won by Irish golfers since Pádraig Harrington set the ball rolling at the same championship in 2007.

Harrington added another two Majors, Rory McIlroy has won four and Lowry joins Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke on one each. This is a remarkable run of Irish success, but it becomes even more remarkable when you consider how other countries have done in the same period.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

The USA is naturally top of the heap with 27 titles since 2007, but Ireland are second, and a long way ahead of third-placed South Africa who've won four. The powerful quartet of South Africa, Australia (2), England (2) and Spain (1) have between them won fewer Major titles than Ireland.

This run of success is probably the greatest achievement in Irish sporting history. In no other major sport have we ever been world class to this extent. We appear to be living on Golf Island.

I'm not sure the magnitude of this achievement has entirely sunk in. Maybe that's because a lot of talk about golf, especially from the game's critics, seems oddly old-fashioned and out of tune with what the game means in today's Ireland.

Whenever sport grants are awarded to golf clubs you're sure to see a story somewhere portraying this as the fat cats of society being looked after while more deserving causes are ignored. This is good knockabout populist stuff, but when you see, as I did recently, your local club being mentioned it pulls you up short.

I know people who are golf club members: a barber, a guy who installs satellite dishes, a guy who fixes domestic appliances, a painter and decorator, and while they're hard workers who get by pretty well, they scarcely count as members of some aristocratic elite.

As he did his triumphal rounds last week, someone threw a question at Lowry designed to make the new champion position himself as a different kind of golfer. Weren't his celebrations, it was suggested, going to annoy the 'stuffy' golf establishment here?

The Offaly man wasn't biting. He answered: "I don't think golf in Ireland is like that at all. Everybody can play golf in Ireland. I think Ireland is one of the few countries in the world where it's not seen like that at all. Yeah there are still a couple of golf clubs that are stuffy, but that's the way it happens. Actually they're not that stuffy. I've been to every 'stuffy' golf club in Ireland and you get looked after very well there, they're nice places."

Lowry's background as the son of a post office worker isn't that different from that of Harrington, whose father was a Garda, or McIlroy, whose parents worked multiple jobs to help meet the expenses of his amateur career. The idea that golf, or even rugby to some extent, is a game for the upper crust is woefully wide of the mark these days.

Go back a couple of generations and golf, like going on a foreign holiday or sending your children to university, was probably something the average Irish family just didn't do. But the country has changed and so has the profile of people who play its various sports. Just as Dublin GAA has put down much stronger roots in suburban communities where it was once a marginal presence, golf has massively broadened its appeal.

Rants about the game's exclusivity might make sense when you're talking about an American scene dominated by country clubs, but they don't apply here.

Full disclosure. A couple of decades ago I did a dreadful TV routine excoriating golf, during which I employed all of those clichés about it being snobby, privileged and totally antithetical to a man of the people like myself.

I have two abiding memories of the day we filmed it. One is that we did the piece on a golf course in North County Dublin and the people who were playing there, and regarded us with friendly bemusement, couldn't have had less in common with the picture I was painting. And the other is that the golf clothes we'd got from McGuirks in Howth, which were supposed to make the game look even more ridiculous, were probably the best bits of clobber I wore that year.

Perhaps that day was when the rot set in and I began to win the victory over myself and learned to love Big Golf. Or perhaps I've learned to believe the evidence of my own eyes rather than hewing to an idea which stopped corresponding with Irish reality a long time ago.

Ireland is good at golf. Lowry's was the big triumph of the week, but Royal Portrush was also a winner. Golf Digest's definitive best 100 golf courses in the world ranks the course at number seven. Royal County Down is number one, Ballybunion, Lahinch, Waterville, Portmarnock, Old Head of Kinsale and the European Club in Wicklow are in there too.

It's a fine showing for a small island. Meanwhile, less heralded clubs set out every year in the hope of winning the Pierce Purcell Shield, which might best be described as a Ryder Cup for club golfers with handicaps between 11 and 15. From the ranks of those clubs will issue new Harringtons, new Lowrys and McIlroys. The clock won't be turned back.

Because you know what golf is in Ireland? Will I say it? It's only going to cause trouble. Ah, why not.

Golf is The People's Game.

Sunday Indo Sport

The Left Wing: The 'hell' of World Cup training camp, Ireland's half-back dilemma and All Blacks uncertainty

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport