Tuesday 16 January 2018

Green tinge to European Tour's celebration of success

Irish players have led a golfing revolution, says Dermot Gilleece

Amid the mandatory strobe lighting, loud music and flashing images for an awards celebration, a famously cool Englishman considered three of the evening's central figures. "The Irish are golfers, not technicians," said Pete Cowen. "And those three guys are massively talented golfers."

As one of the world's leading coaches who claims to retain his sanity through a thick skin and selective hearing, the 61-year-old has Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke among his more prominent clients. And he recognises in them and Rory McIlroy the special gift he saw Christy O'Connor Snr bring to the game when he himself was a struggling tournament player more than 30 years ago.

"Having found a way to play golf, the Irish simply go and do it," said the 1974 Yorkshire Professional champion, who received an unheralded Special Achievement Award at the European Tour's annual Players Awards dinner in London last week. "I played quite a bit with Senior, who had an unbelievable talent for golf. And it's great to see that the magic lives on."

From a total of six awards handed out, only one went to the Northern triumvirate: McIlroy collected Shot of the Year for his stunning birdie from a six-iron tee-shot on the 218-yard 10th hole at Congressional in the final round of last year's US Open.

Yet the evening was shaped in such a way that he, Clarke and McDowell couldn't help dominating it, often to the high amusement of a distinguished international gathering. There was even an Irish dimension to the Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year award, which went to the young Englishman, Tom Lewis.

He will be long remembered for becoming the first amateur to start with a 65 in the Open Championship at Royal St George's last July. And he had another 65 at Vilamoura on October 16, this time a closing one to secure a breakthrough professional victory in the Portugal Masters with Dubliner Colin Byrne on his bag.

It was an occasion for old faces among the young. And with dinner about to start, former Irish Open winner John O'Leary was to be seen physically assisting a feeble 87-year-old John Jacobs to his table and then from it when the celebrations were at an end.

By way of putting an American context on the achievement of our latest Major heroes, presenter Steve Sands of the Golf Channel pointed to the fact that Northern Ireland's population of 1.8 million is outstripped by no fewer than 38 of the 50 states. Then he suggested: "Perhaps Pádraig Harrington from the Republic of Ireland gave his friends in the North a bit of a kick, and got things going at Pebble Beach." There would be other, equally pointed references to Harrington through the evening.

Meanwhile, McDowell clearly relished the attention. "It's been nearly 10 months now since a Northern Irishman has won a Major, and the natives are getting restless," he said, to much laughter.

In their successive appearances on stage, McIlroy was the most subdued of the three, after receiving his award from McDowell. When asked how often he reflected on his record-breaking performance at Congressional, he replied: "Probably not as much as people might imagine. Obviously I did, during the few weeks immediately afterwards. But that was simply to try and get it out of the way so I could concentrate on the rest of the season. I'm not one who tends to look back. I prefer to look forward, though I must admit that there are still moments when I think of what a great week it was."

Cowen then highlighted how it was possible for competitors to win two of the game's great prizes, while taking sharply contrasting attitudes into championship week. On the days leading into the 2010 US Open, McDowell said to him: "I've got a big one in me, Pete. I've got a big one in me." By that weekend, he had made the breakthrough.

Thirteen months later, there was Clarke on the Tuesday of Open week, his Irish caddie John Mulrooney trailing 30 yards behind him. By way of response to a greeting from his coach, he grunted: "I'm hitting it fat, thin. I'm hitting it left; I'm hitting it right. Got no control of my ball-flight. And I can't putt. I'm wasting my time." Knowing his man,

Cowen piped cheerily: "Looks like it's going to be a good week, Darren." The coach recalled: "I had become used to talking him down off the ledge, normally from the 30th floor. But this time he was on the 50th while slitting his wrists at the same time."

Two hours on, a smiling Clarke was demonstrating in practice how to hit a perfect low draw, then a low cut, with the driver. And Cowen was telling him almost as an aside: "Fortunately, Darren, you're probably the best bad-weather player in the world and it looks like there's nasty stuff coming in."

The evening closed with Luke Donald receiving awards as the tour's Golfer of the Year and the Players' Player, as well as the Vardon Trophy. And he talked of how his career turned around on this day 12 months ago, when he became world No 1 after beating Lee Westwood in a play-off for the BMW PGA Championship.

"A lot of praise should go to Pádraig," he said. "He certainly inspired me by winning three Majors in such a short span of time. And since those achievements, the European Tour has really taken off. He created the belief that European players could go out there and win Majors and tournaments all round the world."

It was, indeed, very much an Irish occasion.

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