Sunday 16 December 2018

Glory days for Irish becoming a distant memory

US invasion making it harder for our stars to get a shot at title, says  Dermot Gilleece

Christy O'Connor Jnr holes a putt on the last green during the114th Open Championship played at Royal St Georges Golf Club in 1985. Photo: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images
Christy O'Connor Jnr holes a putt on the last green during the114th Open Championship played at Royal St Georges Golf Club in 1985. Photo: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

After winning the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale 12 months ago, Jordan Spieth was back at his home in Jupiter, Florida, at 11pm that night, local time. It goes some way towards explaining the new-found enthusiasm of young American professionals to challenge for the oldest Major.

Back in 1981, when the event returned to Royal St George's after a lengthy absence, Jack Nicklaus was asked to explain the poor turnout of his fellow countrymen.

"Young guys these days are earning enough by Easter to see them through the rest of the year," said the Golden Bear.

The dramatic change we're seeing emphasised at Carnoustie is clearly a boost to all who sail in the good ship Royal and Ancient.

An obvious downside, however, is that rising standards in a popular sport seem to be heightening the pressure on regular European Tour players to make the field, including the Irish.

"If players are competing regularly and not getting through qualifying, they mustn't be good enough," said Paul Dunne yesterday, with typical directness.

The Greystones player qualified as one of only five Irishmen here through a top-30 place in last season's Road to Dubai - as did Shane Lowry. The other three were former Open champions.

"If anything, I think the qualifying process is easier for Europeans, given that there's no qualifying in America. They get nine places through three PGA Tour events, whereas we in Europe get a total of 21," said Dunne.

Shoot eight to 10 under par at one of the four qualifying venues and you'll get through. It's as simple as that."

Though it's hard to argue with Dunne, the process has clearly become increasingly difficult.

While the country's golfing stock has been boosted hugely by the Open victories of Pádraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy, other less-gifted practitioners seem to be missing out on a tilt at glory.

We are no longer witnessing exploits like those of familiar names such as Christy O'Connor Jnr, Des Smyth, Eamonn Darcy, David Feherty, Ronan Rafferty and Philip Walton, from a previous generation.

Through his share of fifth place behind Johnny Miller in the 1976 Open at Birkdale, O'Connor earned the right to become Ireland's first professional representative in the US Masters, which he played in 1977.

And he was back in the limelight in 1985 at Royal St George's, where a course-record 64 on the opening day culminated in a tie for third behind Sandy Lyle.

Smyth savoured dreams of glory at Royal Troon in 1982, when a strong challenge had him tied fourth behind Tom Watson.

Then we had the thrill of seeing Darcy shoot a third-round 66, en route to a share of fifth place behind Ian Baker-Finch at Birkdale nine years later.

Feherty, meanwhile, was sixth at Troon in 1989 and an admirable tied fourth at Turnberry behind Nick Price in 1994, when Rafferty was seven places further back.

And Walton set pulses racing, especially around his home place of Malahide, when a spirited performance at Troon in 1989 had him in a group tied 13th behind Mark Calcavecchia.

That was a time when final qualifying at four local venues on the Sunday and Monday of Open week offered these players their big chance. And I can recall occasions when five, six or seven of them would join the exempt players in an elite field.

Especially memorable was qualifying for the Open at Muirfield in 1987, when the Irish amateur Eoghan O'Connell shot a course record 65 at North Berwick on the Sunday and equalled it on the Monday to join a field that delivered Nick Faldo's first Major triumph.

The way things are heading, we'll hardly see the like again.

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