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Too Big for Their Boots

Role Models not Tradition Give a Country Majors Pedigree

Posted Apr 20, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece


In the aftermath of the US Masters, it’s been difficult to suppress a certain, mischievous delight at American reaction to the marked scarcity of their leading lights in the climactic stage at Augusta National. Indeed their more vocal scribes were positively outraged that “international players” aka foreigners, should have dared dominate Sunday afternoon to such an unexpected degree.

It was only after we had indulged in this gloating that a rather disturbing reality emerged.  There wasn’t any meaningful European support in sight to pick up the ill-fated challenge of Rory McIlroy.  The navel-gazing became unrealistically parochial among some fanciful Irish observers, however, who bemoaned the fact that experienced hands, Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington, had left the 21-year-old to plough a lone furrow through their failure to survive the halfway cut for a second successive year.

Here we had a classic illustration of a golfing nation becoming just a little bit too big for its boots.  Sure, there is the stunning statistic that from Harrington’s Open triumph at Carnoustie in 2007 until McDowell’s victory at Pebble Beach last June, Ireland actually accounted for four out of the 12 major championships played during that period.  But observers should not conveniently overlook the fact that prior to this amazing success, there hadn’t been a major winner from Europe’s most westerly isle since Fred Daly captured the Open at Hoylake in 1947.

Experience tells us that success at this level tends to be cyclical and is based on role-models rather than tradition.  If tradition could be relied upon to deliver major champions, Scotland would have winners every other year.  In the belief that the country had struck the tradition mother-lode after McDowell’s win last June, some observers saw McIlroy as virtually certain to maintain the trend by delivering a sort of Irish grand-slam of the four majors through victory in the recent Masters. 
If tradition was so powerful, why did the period of dominance by Christy O’Connor Snr, widely acknowledged as one of the finest ball-strikers in the history of the game, fail to fill a lengthy void?  In this context, I believe it is also worth noting that from 1960 until Paul Lawrie's triumph in 1999, no player captured the Open without first winning in the US.  Granted, Sandy Lyle's pre-Open US win was in the unofficial Kapalua International, but it remained an important success on American soil.

As contemporaries of Lyle's, Ireland seemed to have credible Open challengers in Christy O'Connor Jnr, Des Smyth, Eamonn Darcy, David Feherty and Ronan Rafferty.  By his own admission, however, Feherty always looked for a way to "mess-up", whenever he found himself in contention.  And the others did likewise, whether by accident or design.

Contrary to predictions from the cognoscenti of golf in Ireland or elsewhere, it fell to Harrington to make the breakthrough. And it was observing the Dubliner which provided the spark for McDowell who, in turn, seems certain to have a profound impact on McIlroy’s efforts in this area.

And we shouldn’t be at all surprised by this.  After all, we saw it as a perfectly natural progression from a European standpoint that after the Masters breakthrough by Seve Ballesteros in 1980, others would follow.  Which they did, of course, with Bernhard Langer capturing the title in 1985, followed by Lyle in 1988.  Then it was as if Europe had staked a special claim on green jackets when Nick Faldo won in 1989, 1990 and 1996, Ian Woosnam triumphed in 1991, Langer won again in 1993 and Jose Maria Olazabal emerged victorious in 1994 and 1999.

There’s an old Gaelic saying which, roughly translated, tells us that people prosper in each other's shadow.  And in an Irish context, Harrington proved to be an unlikely trail-blazer after Ballesteros had shown the way for his fellow Europeans.  In the US, however, their leading major winners of recent years, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, could be closing in fast on their sell-by date.

But it’s not a cause for panic.  Americans will find new heroes among the fine young players currently treading their fairways.  Meanwhile, there was a reminder for Europe at Augusta that despite their current dominance of the world rankings, major championships remain extremely difficult to win.  I suppose that’s why they call them majors.

- Dermot Gilleece

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