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They take golf seriously here

Three days spent in northern Ireland during the week of the Irish Open at Royal Portrush confirmed a few of life’s rules that ought to have been learned already. The first is don’t tangle with Bushmills Irish whiskey. It will always beat you. Another rule: don’t underestimate the enthusiasm of the inhabitants of Ulster for anything but especially sport. And a third: there are perfectly good reasons why that province of fewer than two million people has produced so many exceptional golfers in recent years.

One reason is the quality of the links courses. Not just Royal Co Down and Royal Portrush, the two jewels, but Portstewart and Castlerock and, in nearby Ireland, Murvagh and Ballyliffen as well. If you are an enthusiastic junior golfer at any of these clubs and you were properly taught as you grew up then you learned how to shape a drive between towering sand dunes, to crack an iron off springy linksland turf, to judge distance on very windy as well as days of flat calm, and how to cope with hard greens. You were taught how to play golf in other words.

Royal Portrush has 100 junior members, three or more fixtures for juniors each week of the Easter, summer and Halloween holidays, and professional coaching both for the junior members, aged 10 and upwards, and children from local primary and secondary schools who may not be members. “We’re like a creche in the holidays” Wilma Erskie, Portrush’s secretary laughed. “Parents drop their kids off in the morning and pick them up in the evening.”

Darren Clarke learned to play on Dungannon’s parkland course but his swing was shaped by playing the links courses up north. “I’ve played Royal Portrush and Portstewart thousands of times” Clarke said. “We used to go after 4pm when the green fees were cheaper.” Godfrey Clarke, his father, remembered. “We’d also play in winter Alliances at courses like Murvagh where the second is a par four. I remember days when Darren needed two drivers, a 1 iron and a wedge to reach the green.

“I used to take a car full of Darren and his friends to league matches. On the way up they’d be talking excitedly about the golf, the course, the match. On the way back after the match, there would be complete silence in the car and I’d be left alone with my thoughts. They were all fast asleep.”

Darren Clarke said he felt it was easier for a player who has learned his golf on a links to adapt to an inland course than vice versa. “If you can play on a links you can play on anything,” the 2011 Open champion said. “That would go a long way towards explaining why we’ve had such success recently.”

Then there is “if he can do it, I can do it” theory. Finding himself on a practice ground hitting balls as well if not better than more successful players alongside him gave Ian Woosnam an epiphany moment in the early 1980s. From that moment on he started winning tournaments, went on to become a Ryder Cup star and the number one ranked player in the world. Likewise, seeing Padraig Harrington become a major champion in 2007, caused others who played on the European Tour to believe in themselves a little more. Of course, when there is such enthusiasm for an event as there was at Portrush for the Open, then you realise that it has a positive effect on the participants of any game, in this case golf though it might be rugby at which Ulster are pretty successful too.

Spectators were so keen to attend the first Irish Open held in the north that all tickets were sold out before the event started and on the morning of pro-am day, there were queues to get in through the gates. Think about the effect of McDowell’s victory. A big success was always likely to be in McIlroy’s future but perhaps it came sooner than expected because of McDowell’s triumph. Think about McIlroy’s cheeky jibe over his shoulder to Clarke during a practice round with Charl Schwartzel, the Masters champion, and Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, before last year’s Open: “Oi Darren. Where’s your major?”

Fred Daly was the first Open champion from northern Ireland. He was born in Portrush and when he clasped the trophy to his chest and made his speech after winning then 1947 Open at Royal Liverpool, he joked that he was honoured to take the trophy back to northern Ireland. “The trophy has never been there. I hope a change of air will help it” he said. It certainly seems to have, particularly since June 2010. And there seems to be no reason why the run of success by golfers from northern Ireland will stop. Nor the supply of Bushmills, either, thankfully.

September 2012

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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