Monday 20 November 2017

Ilonen the victor as Fota gets thumbs up

No fairytale ending for enthusiastic home fans as cold putter lets McDowell down

Finland's Mikko Ilonen celebrates with the course marshalls after winning the 2014 Irish Open at Fota Island Resort, County Cork
Finland's Mikko Ilonen celebrates with the course marshalls after winning the 2014 Irish Open at Fota Island Resort, County Cork

Karl MacGinty

MIKKO ILONEN lifted the trophy, but the roof was raised at Fota Island by such wonderfully noisy and enthusiastic crowds, it's patently clear the Irish Open must return, and soon, to the lovely banks of the Lee.

After a glorious, sun-splashed week in Cork, Ireland's national championship once again features as the best-attended European Tour event.

A whopping 104,801 people packed Fota over five days, which is 10,897 more than attended the showpiece BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth last month, establishing the Deerpark Course as the most player and people-friendly venue on Tour.

The Irish Open heads north to Royal Co Down next May, where the atmosphere is expected to reach the fever-pitch attained at Royal Portrush two years ago.

Predictions that Fota Island Resort will be a front-runner for 2016 are premature, however.

Pending a review of this year's hugely-successful event by the resort's owners, the Kang Family, a Chinese hotel dynasty, with the European Tour, the resort's director of marketing, Seamus Leahy, said: "Two years may be a little too soon but, you can take it as guaranteed, we want it back in the near future."


The sooner the better, according to Ireland's Tour professionals. "I love the venue," says Padraig Harrington. "I think it's great for a golf tournament. The setting, the type of course it is, nice practice facilities, there's a hotel on site and an airport nearby, it seems to have everything, including nice weather.

"I hope it returns and Fota Island gets onto a rota, so that it comes back here regularly," he added.

Graeme McDowell was so eager to provide "amazing crowds" at Fota with the home win they richly deserved, he admitted trying too hard to force his ball into the cup over the final two rounds, resulting in one of the most frustrating weekends of his career.

A share of sixth on 10-under, three behind high-flying Finn Ilonen, is McDowell's best finish in 13 appearances at the Irish Open, but that was of scant consolation to the Portrush man after he'd missed a dozen putts of 10 feet or less on Saturday and Sunday.

Rated one of world golf's deadliest putters, McDowell took just one of a procession of birdie chances his deft shot-making created during yesterday's frustrating, even-par 71.

That birdie came at the par-four sixth, but was cancelled out later by a bogey at 15, where McDowell had the second of yesterday's two three-putts.

Exasperatingly, the first came from distance at the fourth after he'd made the putting surface in two mighty strokes.

Explaining the process by which desire and rising frustration seem to make the cup grow smaller, McDowell said: "There's no doubt that there is a certain mental process that you do go through when you start missing putts.

"You know the right thing to do is to keep trusting what you're doing, keep reading them correctly and keep faith in your technique. The wrong thing is to start to panic, start to over-reach, start to question your mechanics and start to get anxious.

"On Saturday, I was mental state A and today I was mental state B," he added. "I got it in the wrong place mentally today, I started looking for it a little too much, the hole started to shrink as I started to look deep inside my technique, my reading of the greens and my speed.

"And I just couldn't do it," mused McDowell, who had 31 putts in this third round and the same total again in his fourth.

To be assailed by such overpowering doubt in his putter is "very unusual, you know," he went on.

"I'm having a good putting year and it just didn't happen for me this weekend.

"It's very tough to put my finger on why, but positives to take away, my game's in great shape, a big summer ahead, there will be more opportunities," added the Ulsterman.

He goes home to Florida for seven days; returns to defend his French Open title; skips the Scottish Open to spend another week in Orlando with wife Kristin, who expects their first child in late August, and then tees it up at the British Open in Hoylake, the first of four straight weeks of intensive action.

Summing up his Irish Open experience, McDowell said: "Of course it's very disappointing. While it's to have opportunities like this to win tournaments, this one would have been pretty sweet.

"I'd have given my left arm for this finish as I was playing Thursday afternoon," he said of a first round 68 in which jet lag left him faintly out of touch with his limbs.

"I didn't feel in control of my golf ball, didn't feel in control of my body and my expectations were probably fairly low coming into the weekend.

"So, it's nice I was able to compete as well as I did and that I gave myself a chance to win another tournament. It didn't quite happen, but I really enjoyed myself this week.

"The support from the fans was massive. Even my playing partner Fabrizio Zanotti was commenting that they're probably the best fans, certainly on the European Tour, and as I came up 18 there, the hairs literally were standing on my arms.

"Getting to experience that, the buzz, the electricity as only a massive, passionate crowd like this one can generate makes me count myself very fortunate that I do the job I do and people appreciate it. So a big thanks to everyone who supported me this weekend."

After Rory McIlroy and 2009 Irish Open Champion Shane Lowry missed the cut and Padraig Harrington stalled on Saturday, McDowell deserves credit for keeping the tournament very much alive from the home perspective by following Friday's 66 with the 69 on Saturday which left him just three shy of Ilonen.

Sadly, it was only an illusion. Ilonen (34), who joined Harrington and Lowry in history by adding the Irish Open to the West of Ireland Amateur title he won in 1999, said he'd known since signing for a first round 64 on lunchtime last Thursday that a fourth European Tour victory was his to lose.

The rock-steady Scandinavian would never be caught. Mind you England's Danny Willett got within one with a course record 63 on Saturday, while runner-up Edoardo Molinari was beaten by a solitary shot after Ilonen closed with a bogey six after blocking his cautionary 3-iron into the trees at 18.

Though he had to take a drop in the rough at 10 after a small boy, clearly suffering from World Cup fever, trapped it with his right foot and jammed it into the turf, the finn revelled in the atmosphere at Fota as he won the biggest prize of his career.

"It doesn't get much better than this," he said.

Molinari picked up one of three places on offer at next month's Open. He'll be joined at Hoylake by Willett and Matthew Baldwin after the two Englishmen shared third with Kristoffer Broberg, but qualified on foot of their higher world-ranking.

Yet there were 29,500 stars yesterday at Fota!

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