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Ryder Cup Glory For Ireland

Twenty years since Ronan Rafferty set the ball rolling...

Posted Sep 22, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece

ronan rafferty

 Events of 20 years ago this week, effectively shaped the future of tournament golf in Ireland, right up to the staging of the Ryder Cup at The K Club in 2006. It started on the morning after the 1989 Ryder Cup in which a hard-fought tie at The Belfry, kept the trophy in European hands.

On Monday, September 25th,  Irish golfing nerves still tingled with the excitement of the previous afternoon.  That was when Ronan Rafferty distinguished himself with a singles win over reigning Open champion Mark Calcavecchia, and Christy O'Connor Jnr claimed a place in golfing history though the majesty of a 229-yard two-iron approach to the 18th, which forced Fred Couples to concede hole and match.

Now, a bright future beckoned as British PGA officials turned their thoughts to choosing the most suitable venue for the next European staging in 1993. In this context, their executive director, John Lindsey,  was remarkably candid in admitting that "as it stands, the flatness of The Belfry course offers only limited viewing for spectators."  It was an open acknowledgement of the fact that despite the undoubted thrills of the previous three days,  many of the 28,000 all-ticket attendance had to rely on gallery-reaction around the greens,  so as to assess the state of a match.

Departing skipper Tony Jacklin, whose leadership had transformed the biennial event from an American procession into a transatlantic battle of equals, made the point that further down the line, Continental European venues should be considered. "I would like to think that when we decided in 1979 that we were going European, we meant it in all that that entails," he said.

In the meantime, however, there was little indication that such a radical move was being seriously contemplated for 1993. The likelihood was that the event would remain in Britain or Ireland, as it had done since the first home staging at Moortown, Leeds, in 1929. Listing the venues by country, Lindsey read out Royal Troon, Turnberry and Carnoustie from Scotland;  Royal Birkdale, Wentworth, St Mellion and The Belfry from England and Portmarnock, Ballybunion and the so-called County Kildare Club in Ireland. Then, in keeping with the spirit of Jacklin's remarks, we were informed that there would be an 11th application from Spain, probably involving Las Brisas or Valderrama.

When the names of the various venues had been digested, it suddenly dawned on us that the County Kildare Club hadn't even been built yet. We remembered that the 330-acre estate at Straffan, with its 19th century house, had been acquired by the Smurfit organisation only the previous October.  Gradually it began to sink in that in classic entrepreneurial tradition, Michael Smurfit was putting down a marker. Perhaps a 1993 staging might be a trifle ambitious, but who could tell what the future might hold?  

These were the thoughts that went through my head as I drove north from Birmingham on my way to the Dunhill Cup, which was set to start at St Amndrews the following Thursday.  My journey took me to Silloth-on-Solway where I enjoyed a round of golf on the charming, local links on the Monday evening. I had long since promised myself a visit there, because of its association with the great English contralto, Kathleen Ferrier, who was a particular favourite of mine.

Then, after an overnight stay, I set out on the Tuesday morning on the second leg of my journey to St Andrews where Ireland, the defending champions, would face Chinese Taipei in the opening round if defence of their title.  As it happened, their 2-1 margin of victory was a lot closer than anticipated but they went on to beat Sweden 3-0 before the trio of Philip Walton, O'Connor Jnr and Rafferty, lost by 2-1 to the US in Saturday's semi-finals.

Naturally, there was much talk about the Ryder Cup and about the key roles the Irish duo had played.  And I remember trying to answer as best I could, questions from British colleagues about this exciting new venue in Co Kildare. Over the ensuing years, The K Club would become very familiar to them, not least through the staging of the Smurfit European Open, which was launched in September 1995.

Then came the build-up to the Ryder Cup, which had been secured through significant financial support from the Irish government.  The horrors of September 11th 2001 would cause it to be postponed from 2005 to 2006. When it happened, however, those of us who were present to hear the words of John Lindsey in The Belfry on that fateful Monday morning in 1989, could indulge in a gentle glow of satisfaction, at having got the inside track on what would later become great news for golf in these islands.

What Smurfit achieved at The K Club, Sir Terry Matthews felt confident he could do equally well at Celtic Manor in 2010.

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