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The Irish Team

Why have Irishmen won 6 majors in the last 3 years?

Posted Jul 19, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece

darren clarke

Noted American psychologist, Dr Bob Rotella, had a word for it. “Contagion can be a powerful factor in sport,” he said, as we stood behind the 18th green at Royal St George’s on Sunday, while thousands applauded Darren Clarke’s remarkable victory in the Open Championship.

Rotella talked of how easily influenced golfers can be by what goes on around them. Like the amazing length that a certain player appears to be getting out of a new driver.  Or how another player seems incapable of missing putts with the strange-looking blade he has acquired.

 “And they look at somebody winning things and they think ‘I figure I’m capable of doing the same.’” he said.  In normal civilian life, it is called the herd instinct.  And it goes some way towards explaining the extraordinary golfing developments that have seen three Northern Ireland players win three out of the last six Major championships.  And four players from the island of Ireland capture a total of six of these coveted titles in the last three years.

Why is it happening?  My feeling is that much credit has to go Padraig Harrington’s way for proving at Carnoustie, Royal Birkdale and Oakland Hills that self-belief can be wonderfully powerful in conquering sporting peaks.  Graeme McDowell looked at Harrington and liked what he saw, in terms of a golfer pursuing lofty goals.  And it is quite revealing that as late as the eve of last week’s Open Championship, Clarke was quizzing Rotella about how Harrington had made the breakthrough.

In between, of course, there was the stunning, eight-stroke victory by Rory McIlroy in the US Open at Congressional.  This, however, didn’t fall into any pattern.  The 22-year-old Holywood star happens to be a unique talent that can’t be pigeon-holed.  He didn’t need anyone to show him the way.  Rory has had a clear vision of the path to greatness since he first became noticed outside his own patch in his early teens.

Some years ago, I remember being contacted by the sports editor of a Fleet Street newspaper who wanted me to advise him on the appointment of a chief sports correspondent in Ireland.  It was only when I found myself suggesting certain names, that I came to the realisation I could do the job myself.  So I offered myself for the position and got it.

I suspect that something similar was the trigger behind Clarke’s determined assault on Royal St George’s.  Having once being involved in showing McDowell the way when the Portrush player was a member of the same management group, ISM, he then found himself as a mentor to McIlroy.  And suddenly, the thought came to him.  Having helped these guys find their feet on tour and then seen them capture major championships, why shouldn’t he, himself, tread the same path.  Rotella’s contagion.

Whatever the trigger, the outcome was a stunning victory for a 42-year-old who had paid his dues to a notoriously demanding game.  After I had been fortunate enough to see Clarke win the Accenture World Matchplay by beating no less a figure than Tiger Woods in the final at La Costa, I felt it was only a matter of time before the Major successes came along.

Within a year, however, his life was turned upside down. On learning that his wife had breast cancer, he promptly withdrew from the defence of the Matchplay in 2001, when Steve Stricker captured the title. And the dreadfully sad ending to that diagnosis touched millions of hearts through Clarke’s Ryder Cup tears at The K Club in September 2006.

Now he is Open champion.  Does he deserve to be?  Absolutely.  In Saturday’s winds, the quality of a third-round 69 which contained the remarkably high total of 34 putts, was a testament to wondrous ball-striking skills.  Golf owed Clarke, and when it finally offered him his chance of glory, he unhesitatingly grabbed it in skilled, grateful hands.

- Dermot Gilleece

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