Wednesday 25 April 2018

PGA proof of how Ireland's top pros have come up in the world

Six Irish golfers in the US PGA field makes quite a contrast from times past, writes Dermot Gilleece

Shane Lowry in action during the USPGA last weekend – Lowry looks poised to move up that crucial step into the top flight of Irish players.
Shane Lowry in action during the USPGA last weekend – Lowry looks poised to move up that crucial step into the top flight of Irish players.

Dermot Gilleece

No Majors this year, but no cause for concern. The broadening of Ireland's elite base on the international golfing stage gained emphasis last weekend at Oak Hill where four final-day qualifiers for a second successive year brought home cumulative prize money of $379,835.

There was also the prestige of eighth-placed Rory McIlroy having Ted Bishop, president of the PGA of America, as a partner in the earlier team event to mark the staging of the event. All of which contrasted sharply with the consolation $1,000 which Ronan Rafferty received for missing the cut at Shoal Creek in 1990.

Bishop paid tribute to McIlroy's impact on Sunday's happenings. And the PGA chief also left no doubt as to what America is expecting from his adventurous choice of Tom Watson as Ryder Cup skipper at Gleneagles next year.

On my first visit to Oak Hill for the US Open of 1989, Ireland had no representative in the field. So having six challengers last week made quite a change from a barren period stretching from the time the PGA became a strokeplay event in 1958 until Rafferty appeared at Shoal Creek as a reward for leading the European Order of Merit the previous year.

Ireland have had no fewer than nine PGA representatives since then. With their best performances they are: David Feherty (T7 in 1991), Philip Walton (T39 1995), Darren Clarke (T9 2000), Paul McGinley (T6 2004), Pádraig Harrington (won 2008), Graeme McDowell (T10 2009) and McIlroy (won 2012), along with Shane Lowry (T57 2013) and Michael Hoey, who played in 2012.

Though he slipped down last weekend's order due largely to a disappointing third round of 75, Lowry looks poised to move up that crucial step into the top flight of Irish players. In this context, his heart is set on a Ryder Cup place next year, though he's aware this would become a daunting challenge unless he manages to get into the world's top 50. And he is currently ranked 80th.

And despite the European Tour's current difficulties, reflected in an inability to drum up sufficient cash to stage even one event over the last three weeks, Lowry is determined that his competitive future will continue to be largely on this side of the Atlantic. "I believe my overall game is already strong enough to compete at the highest level," he said. "All I need is the ranking to get into all the big events and I believe that can be achieved in Europe."

Meanwhile, through his elevated status within the PGA, Bishop talked about getting to know McIlroy "very well". "I played with him on the media day in June and was really glad to see him get into contention for the championship," he said. "When I was doing a TV interview on the opening day, I made the prediction that 'rarely do you say that the defending champion is going to fly in under the radar, but Rory certainly is right now. And I think he's going to be a factor on Sunday afternoon'. And I'm delighted to say he was."

Looking at Jason Dufner capturing the title in a distinctly low-key finish, I was reminded of the actor Alec Guinness who, when attempting to master a new role, claimed that the first thing you had to get right was the walk. It has to be said that Dufner doesn't have the sort of imposing walk one associates with golfing greatness. It is what Thomas Hardy would have considered a slow, silent walk, some way removed from the purposeful stride of Jack Nicklaus or Vijay Singh, or McIlroy's jaunty amble, or the brisk, business-like progress of Watson. At 36, however, he fits the age-profile just about right.

In the wake of Phil Mickelson's victory at Muirfield and Clarke's success at Royal St George's two years ago, it may surprise that in the history of the Majors going back to Old Tom Morris in 1861, only 26 players in their 40s have triumphed. And despite the current emphasis on fitness, only four of them – Singh, Clarke, Ernie Els and Mickelson – have come in this millennium. The 1990s boasts five, in Hale Irwin, Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, Mark O'Meara and Payne Stewart.

And at a time when Open Championship attendances dipped significantly, the American game seems to be prospering at the highest level. "We've had the biggest crowds at Oak Hill since our staging at Hazeltine National in 2009," said Bishop.

This was reflected in figures of 35,000 for Thursday, 39,000 on a rainy Friday, a bumper 43,000 on Saturday and 38,000 on Sunday. That's a total of 155,000 over the four days, compared with 110,710 for the four days at Muirfield last month. And an additional 31,320 for practice days at The Open made for a total of 142,036 in all, compared to close on 200,000 at the PGA.

One can only speculate as to what Sunday's figure at Oak Hill would have been had Tiger Woods or Mickelson been challenging for the title. The attendance for the climax at Muirfield was a disappointing 29,247, smaller even than the 30,362 at Royal Portrush for the final day of the Irish Open two years ago.

Money is clearly an issue. In this context, the daily admission charge of £75 ($100) for The Open, contrasted with $85 on Saturday and Sunday at Oak Hill. Incidentally, the other daily charges at the PGA were: Monday and Tuesday, $25; Wednesday, $35 and Thursday and Friday, $75. And a good-quality shirt was $55, compared with almost twice that price at Muirfield. Small wonder Bishop highlighted merchandise sales as a key component of his association's overall income from the event, representing as much as 15 to 20 per cent of "the total revenue base, if you factor the TV money out of the equation".

While acknowledging the PGA's significant upsurge in popularity over the last 20 years, he saw no real rivalry between the Majors. "I look on them like you would four children," said Bishop. "All have different personalities and we love them for a bunch of special reasons. Mind you, the PGA has the only all-professional field which also happens to be the strongest of the four."

Future stagings of the PGA are: 2014 Valhalla; 2015 Whistling Straits; 2016 Baltusrol; 2017 Quail Hollow and 2018 St Louis. And not having staged it at a west coast venue since Sahalee, Washington State in 1998, they are looking seriously at a California venue, probably in the next decade.

Finally, Bishop considered his single-minded pursuit of Watson as the man to restore American supremacy in the Ryder Cup. "If you look at the last 13 stagings, seven of them have come down to one point or less," he said. "And nine of the last 13 have been won by two points or less.

"Now consider a situation at Celtic Manor (2010) where Jim Furyk and Rickie Fowler were playing their second match in alternate shot and Furyk hooked his shot outside the ropes in the mud. They got

relief from casual water and Fowler took the drop. Unfortunately, he just happened to take the drop with the ball he was carrying in his pocket [inadvertently having two balls in play], which resulted in loss of hole.

"Now fast forward. Furyk and Fowler win the 18th hole to halve the match with Westwood and Kaymer. So that drop made a half a point difference in the outcome of that Ryder Cup. Had it not happened, we would have tied 14-14 and the United States would have retained the trophy because we had gone there as the defending champions from Valhalla.

"Fast forward again to Medinah. Tiger Woods is standing on the 18th tee with a one up lead over Molinari. If he halves that hole, it's a 14-14 tie and the United States has now retained three Ryder Cups. I mean, that's how close this competition has been.

"I don't know if the Europeans are any better today than they were six or eight years ago, but I will say this: the closeness of these Ryder Cups was one of the reasons that we picked Tom Watson as our captain. If you're considering what a captain might bring to the Ryder Cup, you look at a guy like Watson with his success and his experience of playing in Scotland. And you think, 'Maybe somewhere along the line during that week, he's going to be worth a point or a half a point to somebody'. And that that will be the difference in the outcome."

Mind you, we can be sure that Bishop's team partner of two months ago would take a rather different view of the situation.

Sunday Independent

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