Tuesday 23 January 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: The Irish Open may not be a major - but it's ours

22 May 2016; Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland celebrates with the trophy after winning the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship at The K Club in Straffan, Co. Kildare. Matt Browne/Sportsfile
22 May 2016; Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland celebrates with the trophy after winning the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship at The K Club in Straffan, Co. Kildare. Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

When I think of the Irish Open I think of Mark McCumber strolling down the 18th fairway at Portmarnock on the final day in 1979.

The shot he hit off the tee was his 281st of the week. Mark James leads in the clubhouse on 282 and McCumber is the only man who can match him. Though to do that he’ll have to put this second shot in the hole. It’s unlikely. McCumber takes a look at the distant green, grins and despatches his caddy to take the flag out of the hole. The crowd erupts. Admiration for the American’s effrontery is general all over Ireland. And to this day that moment is the first one that comes to my mind when the Irish Open is mentioned.

It doesn’t really matter that McCumber’s second shot barely reached the green, whereupon the backspin planned to bring it into the hole made the American’s position so much worse that he three-putted and ended up in third place rather than the second which might have been guaranteed by a more rational approach. Or that he never became one of the sport’s stars, though he did finish second in a couple of Majors. His audacious gesture on the 18th seems to sum up what made the reborn Irish Open of the ’70s such a glamorous event for an impressionable kid like myself.

The Irish Open mattered more then. Partly because with so little live sport on Irish television in the ’70s, anything broadcast assumed massive importance in the minds of the viewers. Live GAA coverage was confined to All-Ireland semi-finals and finals. There wasn’t even The Sunday Game, so the only coverage of provincial deciders might be a brief highlights package on the following weekend’s Sports Stadium. The only live English soccer match in the whole season would be the FA Cup final. European soccer was known through truncated clips on Sportsnight, if you were in multi-channel land, and three cup finals a year if you weren’t.

There was no Heineken Cup, coverage of Lions tours was restricted to highlights and even the famous Munster victory over the All Blacks existed, for everyone apart from the 120,000 who claim to have been at Thomond Park that day, as a couple of minutes of shaky highlights on the news. Unable to see the events we loved, we loved the events we saw. You wouldn’t believe how interested we could make ourselves in something like the Top Ace handball competition. The Aga Khan Cup was followed with a fervour that would seem incomprehensible today. And the Irish Open was a very big deal indeed.

TV coverage wasn’t the only reason for its appeal. For another thing, it gave us our own national open. Its precursor, the Carrolls International, just hadn’t been the same thing. The Irish Open also benefited from the fascination with anything which has come back from the dead. It had lain in the grave for 22 years before springing, Dracula-like, back to life in 1975.

This was a particularly propitious time for revival. Because 1975 was also a year when Ireland had for the very first time provided three players to the Great Britain and Ireland Ryder Cup team. It was perhaps significant that this Ryder Cup brought an end to a run of 10 successive appearances by Christy O’Connor. The torch had been passed to the twenty-something trio of his nephew Christy, Eamon Darcy and John O’Leary (below).

The first two are probably best known for the Ryder Cup heroics late in their careers which rank among the great moments of Irish golfing history. But O’Leary was the man who caught the eye to the greater extent at the time. How he could he not? He boasted not just one of the great Irish afros of all-time but a natty line in threads which gave him a certain resemblance to one of the maverick TV cops of the time. You wouldn’t have been entirely surprised to see him popping up on an episode of Starsky and Hutch.

The year before McCumber’s folly the nation watched as O’Leary engaged in a titanic struggle on the final day with Ken Brown. Ireland v England clashes always carry a certain frisson which was increased in this case by the fact that Brown seemed to epitomise a certain variety of Englishness which we find particularly uncongenial. To put it bluntly, he seemed like a long uptight streak of misery. The contrast with the ebullient O’Leary could hardly have been greater. During that final round Brown kept getting in trouble before extricating himself thanks to a remarkable short game. It was probably my introduction to one of the most thrilling things in sport, the ebb and flow of fortune over the final few holes of a closely fought golf tournament.

In the end the bad guy won, O’Leary fading over the final two holes to let Brown win by a stroke. In joint second place with the home challenger was a Spaniard who’d almost scored a shock win at the British Open the previous year and was being tipped for great things. Ballesteros his name was.

Few people suspected the extent of the revolution which Seve would spearhead over the next few years. At the time the superiority of the Americans was total. From 1971 to 1978 they’d won all but three Majors and those had been taken by the one-man resistance movement that was Gary Player. Yet they were to a certain extent mysterious figures, only seen live during the British Open. The biennial Ryder Cup humiliation of the best golfers from these islands attracted scant coverage in Ireland. Most of the time we only knew the Yanks, through a few lines in the sports pages informing us that they’d won things with names like the Bob Hope Classic. European golfers, by comparison, had no hope at all.

Not the least of the attractions of the Irish Open was that it gave us a chance to see some top American talent. Nicklaus and Watson never came but Hubert Green’s annexation of the Irish Open just two months after he’d won its US equivalent seemed to show that we were playing in the big leagues. Ben Crenshaw had won the previous year while Major winners Orville Moody and John Mehaffey also arrived, as did Al Geiberger, famous at the time for just having shot the first ever round of 59 in a PGA tour event. They added a touch of that stateside pizzazz epitomised by McCumber’s beautiful piece of showboating.

We didn’t know it then but the era of American hegemony was drawing to a close. Its demise was heralded by Ballesteros winning the British Open in the last year of the decade, the first European Major victory since Tony Jacklin’s in the first year. Soon Seve would be joined by Lyle, Woosnam, Faldo and Langer.

Few events encapsulated those glory days for European golf like the 1985 Irish Open duel between Ballesteros and Langer, which the Spaniard finally won in a play-off. Given the standing of both men at the time and the standard of their play it may rank as one of the greatest sporting contests to take place on Irish soil. Eventually, of course, the European revival would lead to a time when Irish golfers won Majors, the old mystique surrounding the Americans having been well shattered by this stage.

Our own Pádraig Harrington turned out to be even better than any of those glamorous American visitors from the ’70s and in time he would win the Irish Open. And when he did, in 2007, thoughts turned back to the last Irishman who’d done it. It was John O’Leary. Back in 1982 he once more held a winning position going into the final few holes. This time the chasing pack included Greg Norman, Seve, Langer, Faldo, Lyle and, in an amazing last hurrah, the original Christy O’Connor. Approaching the 18th green 57-year-old O’Connor pretended to use his club as a walking stick, a gesture as memorable as that of McCumber’s three years previously and as inimitably Irish in its self-deprecatory way as the younger man’s had been typically American in its chutzpah.

The old man’s third-place finish would have been memorable enough but O’Leary’s win sent the audience into raptures. This time there was no mistake. There was a record crowd there to watch him: 28,000 on the final day; 108,000 over the four rounds. Thirty-four years later the attendance there to see Rory McIlroy win at The K Club was remarkably similar. McIlroy was a fitting winner because it was his commitment to the event that had restored it to the centrality it enjoyed back in the ’70s and ’80s.

These days there is a lot more competition for our attention. But there will always be a place in our hearts for the Irish Open. It might not be a Major but it’s ours. That matters.

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