Sport Golf

Friday 24 November 2017

Tiger poised to end Irish love affair with US Open

Tiger Woods of the United States hits a shot on the practice ground during a practice round prior to the start of the 112th U.S. Open. Photo: Getty Images
Tiger Woods of the United States hits a shot on the practice ground during a practice round prior to the start of the 112th U.S. Open. Photo: Getty Images

NOT so long ago, an Irishman winning the US Open would have been considered preposterous.

If one of his best mates from home then made it two-in-a-row, we'd all have been beating the bushes for leprechauns.

Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy have extended the bounds of credibility so far at golf's toughest Major Championship, it's by no means outlandish to suggest that either Northern Irishman or Dubliner Padraig Harrington might make it a hat-trick in San Francisco next Sunday.

Like all US Open first-timers, Ireland's fourth man in this championship, Peter Lawrie, must be spared the burden of expectation.

striking

One of the most striking features of McDowell's win at Pebble Beach and McIlroy's record-shattering success at Congressional last June has been America's enthusiastic embrace of successive Irish winners at their national championship.

In a fascinating article published by influential US magazine 'Sports Illustrated', Michael Bamberger proposes that these two affable sons of Ulster "won the hearts of Americans as only Irishmen can."

Bamberger also insists that McDowell and McIlroy, with their easy nature, robust humour and bright-eyed competitive nature actually represent the true spirit of the sport in America.

After thanking the Scots for bringing the ancient game with them across the Atlantic, he suggests: "America doesn't takes its cues from Generation Haggis anymore.

In fact, it hasn't for a century now.

"American golfers aren't really interested in the dour Scottish version of the game. Our golf has an Irish lilt. The story of American golf is the story of Irish-American golf.

"Our golf is about gambling, sunshine, beers from the back of the cart, cigars, wedges over ponds that leave craters in our emerald greens.

"Our golf is about hanging out with friends, in no rush to go anywhere. It's Irish to its core.

"If Peter Hanson and Frerik Jacobson, two stolid Swedes, had won the last two US Opens, golf would have been all a-twitter over a single question: 'What's wrong with American golf?'

"But because the last two US Opens were won by likeable Ulstermen, there were no cyberscreeds. We took the boys in like long lost cousins."

With roughly 35m Americans claiming a connection to Ireland and upwards of 35,000 first-generation Irish living in the San Francisco Bay Area, it's hardly surprising that the Olympic Club this week has been awash with accents from home.

Yet according to Vivian Walsh, a Ballinasloe man who moved to San Francisco 21 years ago and owns 'Durty Nellys' on Irving Street, a few miles from Olympic, his American patrons were every bit as excited as the Irish by the feats of McDowell and McIlroy.

"They were all totally into it," said Walsh (41), an enthusiastic golfer who plays off a handicap of 11.

Walsh, who has flags signed by Harrington and Paul McGinley hanging on his walls, met the Ryder Cup legends through his good friend, Fr Brendan McBride, from Donegal.

How great in these hard-pressed times to hear of so many Americans 'living' an Irish dream!

Rory needs to find his perfect pitch

RORY McILROY eased comfortably into the company of the San Francisco Giants and was warmly acknowledged by their fans as he threw the ceremonial first pitch against the Houston Astros on Tuesday to mark 'Irish Heritage Night' at AT&T Park.

The 23-year-old acquitted himself quite well, firing the ball from the pitcher's mound straight to the catcher.

Though it was above head-height, McIlroy at least avoided the embarrassment, boos and catcalls which throwing a bouncer has brought to many other 'celebrity pitchers.'

One cannot resist the suggestion that McIlroy once again will find himself in an alien sporting environment today at Olympic when he tees it up in the first round of the US Open with World No 1 Luke Donald and the Englishman's compatriot Lee Westwood.

Rain and heavy fog yesterday morning must have reminded McIlroy of Congressional last June, when the merciful heavens granted the youngster a free pass after Augusta and doused the golf course on each of the four days. Yet Olympic this week is going to play hard and fast, in the proudest US Open tradition, making a course which does not really fit McIlroy's game, or his nature, more hostile.

McIlroy tried and failed to temper his game to suit Sawgrass last month, so to hear him echo the pledge of Masters Champion Bubba Watson to attack the Lake Course, wherever prudent or possible, hardly came as a surprise.

patience

Yet it's clearly a high-risk strategy. Patience, prudence and precision off the tee will be at a premium over the next four days with players like McDowell, Harrington, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Jim Furyk, Jason Dufner, Steve Stricker, Matt Kuchar and Martin Kaymer among a crowd of contenders.

Usually, a couple of arch-grinders like McDowell and Harrington would be among the favourites.

Yet much as the Portrush man McDowell likes the golf course and despite the know-how Harrington takes from three Major victories, both have been too inconsistent recently to inspire great confidence of success in this gruelling environment.

hole 16 -- too long even for big hitters

It is the longest hole in major golf and is set to become one of the most contentious as well. If Phil Mickelson is any judge, at 670 yards, the 16th is set to drive the players here to distraction.

Players usually approach par-fives with enthusiasm. Not so at The Olympic, claims Mickelson.

"You play 15 holes of really tough 'golf' and you finally get your first par five -- and it's the toughest on the course," said Mickelson, before adding, "and maybe the worst."

Three yards longer than the 12th was at Oakmont five years ago, the 16th is a three-shotter for each and every member of the field. Bubba Watson, arguably the game's biggest-hitter, nailed two drivers in practice and came up 70 yards short.

Mickelson, meanwhile, was left with a 214-yarder for his third shot on Tuesday. "My prediction is the 16th will play more over par than any hole on the course," said the left-hander. "I would never say it's unfair. I just wouldn't say it's a good hole. It's a case where longer is not better."

Mickelson, however, was full of praise for the rest of the lay-out. Seeking to banish jinx

of the 'Giant-Killer'

THE mighty have been humbled in all four US Opens played at Olympic. In 1955, for example, Ben Hogan had already handed over his golf ball to officials from the USGA Museum when obscure Iowa Pro Jack Fleck forced a tie and then beat him in the play-off.

Arnie Palmer ('66), Tom Watson ('87) and Payne Stewart ('98) also led into the final round at Olympic, only to be overhauled on Sunday, leading the Lake Course to be described as the 'Giant-Killer'. Yet the decision to change all 18 putting surfaces from poa to bent grass and much-needed surgery on the last green should ensure this yeardoesn't wander too far onto the wild side.

The eyes of the world inevitably will be drawn to Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson -- one expects one or the other of American icons to turn one Olympic tradition on its head.

Of the two, Woods is best equipped of any player in golf history to meet the mental challenge this week. So, it's a fourth US Open for Tiger and, after a horrible four-year intermission, his 15th Major in all.

US Open,

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