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The Right Year for Portrush

Dermot Gilleece talks to George O'Grady of the European Tour

Posted Jun 25, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

portrush

Player power at its most desirable will be in evidence this week when the Irish Open returns to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1947.  There is general agreement north and south of the Irish border that such a happening became entirely appropriate after Darren Clarke’s remarkable victory in the Open Championship at Royal St George’s last July.

As it happened, the Irish Open went to Killarney for a second successive year within a couple of weeks of that triumph, so making Clarke the 38th Major champion to grace the event since its revival in 1975.  Now, this figure is to be increased to 40 through the first-time appearances of Rich Beem and fellow American Keegan Bradley, holder of the PGA Championship.

In fact a total of 10 Major champions will be in Portrush.  And the impact of Irish players at the highest level of the game can be gauged from the fact that they represent as much as 40 per cent of that total.  The full Major line-up is: Clarke, Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy, Bradley, Beem, John Daly, Paul Lawrie, Jose-Maria Olazabal and Michael Campbell.  It is the strongest field since Murphy’s pushed out the boat as title sponsors during the 1990s, when the world’s finances were in a far healthier state.

This week has a rather special resonance for George O’Grady, chief executive of the European Tour.  So enthusiastic is he, in fact, that he has predicted boldly: “It should be as big as an Open Championship with a particular Irish flavour.  Enormous crowds and just simply a superb atmosphere.  A great golf tournament.”

All of which is prompted by childhood memories for O’Grady of golf lessons from the legendary “Stevie”, during endless summer days knocking balls around the Dunluce links.  And quieter times, bird-watching with his uncle on walks along the ruggedly wild North Atlantic coastline.

It is not a contrived affection but rather the natural consequence of a remarkable family background.  “The fact that I hit my first-ever golf-shots while on school holidays in Portrush, gave it a special place in my life,” he recalled.  “And I was to discover recently that those connections with the past remained very real.”

His mother, Ethanie Hill, was a native of Portrush, who went south for a university education at Trinity College, Dublin, where she started out by reading music but switched to medicine after a year.  It proved to be a fateful decision in that it brought her into contact with a young man named Richard O’Grady from Cork. “The story in the family is that he gate-crashed her 21st birthday party without actually meeting her there,” said their youngest son. “They first got to know each other after World War II by which stage they were both qualified doctors attached to the RAF in Newmarket.”

A consequence of service life was that the third of their three sons first saw the light in far-off Singapore in 1949 when both George’s parents were working as Air Force doctors.  And an enduring connection with Portrush came from one of two uncles there, Dr Billy Hill, a keen ornithologist who practised medicine in the town all his life until his death last year.  “During my visit for the Irish Open press conference early this year, it seemed that virtually every member of the club council both knew him and played golf with him,” his newphew recalled. “He died in a nursing home in Britain.”

By his own admission, that visit also reminded O’Grady of what he described as the phenomenal, scenic beauty of walks around the White Rocks.  The club professional, under whose tutelage O’Grady took his first, faltering swings with a golf club, was PG Stevenson, known affectionately as “Stevie” and later to be succeeded by his son, Dai.  From boarding school in England, the young O’Grady went back to Portrush on holiday, due to the dangerous situation in Cyprus where his father was stationed at that time.

When the possibility was raised of the Irish Open going back to a venue where Harry Bradshaw captured the title in 1947, O’Grady needed little briefing.  From the time Harrington made the Major breakthrough with his Open victory at Carnoustie in 2007, he emphasised the importance of the country’s leading players in determining arrangements for the blue riband of Irish tournament golf.

So he had no hesitation in saying: “If the event was going North, this had to be the year.  It’s the right year.  Having the reigning Open champion living in Portrush, the Graeme McDowell connection there and, of course, what Rory McIlroy has been doing, removes any argument against such a move. And it all goes back to what Padraig did in 2007. He showed the whole lot of them that it was do-able.”

The upshot of it is that Northern Ireland is being some rather special sporting cheer this week, as a prelude to this Olympic summer.

- Dermot Gilleece

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