How winning became par for the course

Sat, Dec 22, 2012, 00:00

GOLF: The Irish Majors: Irish Golf’s Magnificent Seven, By Philip Reid, Gill & Macmillan, 254pp, €16.99

Ireland had an odd relationship with golf during the boom. The 1932 Eucharistic Congress acted as a vital building block in the self-image of the new nation, divided by Civil War animosity but united by Catholic piety. Similarly, staging the 2006 Ryder Cup can be seen retrospectively as the high point of the Celtic Tiger, with the European captain, Ian Woosnam, playing the unlikely role of papal legate.

Both events are remembered for the fawning reverence of the coverage. But perhaps a clue to the Celtic Tiger’s demise was first glimpsed in a TV interview with one of the K Club’s owners, throughout which he kept a K Club cap balanced prominently on his knee. It seemed like clever promotion, but future historians may wonder if he had a hole in the knee of his trousers, with this being a first hint that the Tiger edifice was about to collapse.

Ironically, while luxury golf clubs spread across the face of Ireland during the boom like an expensive form of acne, none of the four major champions who have transformed Irish golf internationally were from the privileged backgrounds with which those new clubs became synonymous. They now have exceedingly comfortable lifestyles, but, as Philip Reid’s informative and highly readable account of the remarkable feats of Pádraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke shows, all come from relatively modest backgrounds and have an ingrained work ethic that was looked down on during our era of speculation.

Reid’s book is a captivating shot-by-shot account of the seven major titles Irish golfers accumulated over six years, after a 60-year wait during which nobody could emulate Fred Daly’s achievement in winning the Open, in 1947. But Reid – this newspaper’s Golf Correspondent – also looks at the foundations success was built on.

Some of them relate to the Golfing Union of Ireland (GUI), which gives huge support to young talent. The GUI is greatly assisted by the foundation established by Darren Clarke – the eldest of Ireland’s four major champions, although the last to attain this status – which helped many young golfers, including Rory McIlroy.

But, as Reid highlights, the main foundation for success was provided by the four sets of parents who recognised their sons’ potential and were prepared to make sacrifices to let them realise it. Thankfully, here there is no Earl Woods or Peter Graf (Steffi’s zealously ambitious father), but working-class parents like Godfrey and Hettie Clarke, who paid £112 for family membership of Dungannon Golf Club, where they dropped off their teenage son with a packed lunch to play 54 holes in a day.

Psychological challenge

This investment of time, money and encouragement might not have seemed as big a gamble for Gerry and Rosie McIlroy, who saw their son become the Irish Amateur Close Championship’s youngest winner at 15 and then the youngest modern European player to win a major, at only 22. However, the golfing limbo now occupied by the former world number one David Duval shows that talent is not the only ingredient needed in a game that is as much a psychological as a physical challenge.

What is most interesting about the four golfers Reid examines is not the major successes uniting them but their different expectations and routes into the pro game. McIlroy seemed destined for success from childhood. Clarke seemed similarly destined when he turned pro early, after a glittering amateur career. But although he enjoyed professional success, the weight of personal tragedy, parental responsibility and ageing meant that journalists who questioned him before the 2011 British Open – which he won so conclusively, aged 42 – never asked about his own chances. They just wanted his opinions, as an elder statesman, about the prospects of fellow Northern golfers McIlroy and McDowell.

Although Reid vividly captures each of the seven victories, it is Clarke’s success (when considered a well-loved but extinct force) and Harrington’s initial success in chasing down what was starting to resemble an impossible holy grail that most interested the present reviewer.

Harrington was shaped by his parents, especially his late father, Paddy, a garda, who encouraged his talent, at Stackstown Golf Club, but also instilled sufficient realism for his son to study accountancy before turning pro, so he would have a profession to fall back on. Not initially marked out for glory, Harrington is Ireland’s most successful golfer, not just in terms of major wins (a record likely to be eclipsed) but in terms of maximising his ability through hard work.

There again, in an era when success came to be measured by how much you could borrow from a bank, all four men exemplified a different outlook, one that involved constant effort, incessant practice and a mental toughness that allowed them, at differing stages of their careers, to leave their mark on a world stage.

Reid’s book has an occasional tendency to become more a miscellany than a narrative, with sections comparing the physical details of each trophy or listing the six best shots in major history. I would have been interested in his analysis of why, in such a short time frame, Ireland produced this array of champions, or where golf sits on the fault lines that bisect Northern Ireland and that already have McIlroy under unfair advance pressure to wrap himself in one flag or other for the Rio Olympics. I would also have liked Reid’s thoughts on Harrington’s career since his third major, to explore not only how difficult it is to scale such heights but also how a sportsman copes with the pressures success brings.

But these are not Reid’s themes. Instead, he vividly recaptures each victory and the wondrous miracle that Ireland has suddenly won more golfing majors than Eurovision Song Contests. Truly that is something to sing about.

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