McIlroy and McDowell add a touch of class to Irish Open line-up

Irish duo the only top ten-ranked players in the world to tee it up at Carton House


By its very nature, the official world golf rankings are designed to reflect a player’s status. The more successful a player is, the higher his position in the list. And vice versa.

The rankings also provide a window into assessing the strength of a tournament’s field and, looking back over the past 25 years since the rankings were first introduced, it is evident that the Irish Open of the mid 1980s into the ’90s attracted heavy hitters who lived life atop those rankings.  

In the 11 Irish Opens from 1987 to 1997 inclusive, no fewer than nine of the champions came from the world’s top-10.

The list was a ‘who’s who’ of golf’s elite club of that era with one Major champion after another laying claim to a title that, at the time, was one of the most prized regular tournaments on the PGA European Tour schedule.

The title is still a prized one, maybe just not as much as it once was. And, where once the roll of honour was dominated by the Faldos and Langers and Woosnams who all reached the pinnacle of the world rankings at some point or other in their careers, the evidence of more recent times would indicate a more open playing field.

Indeed, the last time someone ranked inside the world’s top-10 going into the tournament emerged as champion was all of 12 years ago, when Colin Montgomerie – ranked ninth in the world – won at Fota Island.

The official world rankings were only introduced mid-season in 1986, the first full year of their operation coming in 1987. The system – based on one devised by the sports agent Mark McCormack, founder of IMG – was first used by the R&A to ensure a better representation of the world’s top players at the British Open championship.

It was subsequently used by the other Major championships (the Masters, the US Open and the US PGA) and has been refined over time with the remit to identify a ranking of the best players.

On only one occasion, however, has the world number one gone into an Irish Open and lived up to his billing: that was at Mount Juliet in 1993 when Nick Faldo carried the mantle of the world’s best player into the tournament and won, in the process claiming a hat-trick to titles to the Irish Opens he’d claimed at Killarney in the proceeding two years.  

The clear indicator of the ’80s/early-to-mid’90s was that someone ranked among the world’s elite would, more often than not, land the Irish Open.

The sequence was only broken in 1995 when Sam Torrance – world ranked 47th going into the tournament, albeit still in the top-50 – won at Mount Juliet, only for Colin Montgomerie to bring the old order back into play when winning back-to-back titles at Druids Glen in 1996 and 1997 when he was ranked number three and four respectively.

Then, something happened. If you make allowances for the fact that a teenaged Sergio Garcia was always destined to be one of the sport’s upcoming stars when winning in 1999 when ranked 150th in the world, the trend nevertheless started to change around that time.

The previous year, David Carter was 210th in the world rankings when defeating Montgomerie in a play-off at Druids Glen for the 1998 title and, in 2000, Patrick Sjoland was ranked  121st going into the championship at Ballybunion where the Swede triumphed.

Ranked ninth
Montgomerie’s win at Fota Island in 2001, when he was ranked ninth, represented the last time that someone from inside the world’s top-10 won the Irish Open.

Since then, there have been a number of wins from players ranked outside the world’s top-200: Brett Rumford (267th) at Baltray in 2004 and Richard Finch (ranked 218th) at Adare Manor in 2008.

Also, Shane Lowry, then playing as an amateur, didn’t have a ranking prior to his remarkable win at Baltray in 2009, but the win propelled him into the rankings at 168th.  

This week’s Irish Open at Carton House features two players – both Irish – ranked inside the world’s top-10: world number two Rory McIlroy and number nine-ranked Graeme McDowell. Another four – defending champion Jamie Donaldson (39th), Francesco Molinari (41st), Paul Lawrie (45th) and David Lynn (46th) – are inside the world’s top-50.  

The European Tour’s James Finnigan acknowledged recently that tournaments in Europe find it increasingly difficult to compete with clashing events in the USA.

“Players have been seduced by the PGA Tour to play for six or seven million dollars every week, they take a first-prize cheque that sometimes exceeds the prize fund we have on offer in Europe. The commercial reality is that we have a €2 million event (in the Irish Open) and that’s a €4 million project for the European Tour (with staging costs) for the European Tour to deliver a quality tournament,” said Finnigan.

His comments reinforce the stark commercial reality of why it is so hard for regular tournaments on this side of the Atlantic to face an ongoing battle to compete with the PGA Tour.

For instance, the Irish Open goes head-to-head with the Tiger Woods hosted AT&T National.

Regular tournament
The blessing for the Irish Open in this day and age is that Ireland’s golfers – headed by McIlroy and McDowell – are the Faldos and Langers of old, and that they continue to show a loyalty to the tournament. Any other regular tournament in Europe would drool at the prospect of having them in the field, so their presence in Carton House shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley, who is making a 23rd appearance in the tournament, is inclined to bristle at the notion that it is no longer among the top tier of tournaments on the European Tour.

“We have the world’s number two player playing, all the Irish guys who have won Majors in recent years  . . . . it is great the Irish players are playing with no appearance fees. They’re playing for the honour and as a payback for what happened in their amateur careers when they were funded by the Golfing Union of Ireland and Irish people,” said McGinley.  

And, for sure, there has been something of a revival – in terms of re-establishing the Irish Open as a festival and something special in the calendar – in recent years.

Killarney stepped up to the mark in playing host in 2010 and 2011 and Royal Portrush moved it up another notch last year, when it became the first tournament in European Tour history to be a sell-out.

Two players
Carton House will see a number of initiatives to maintain that festival feel, among them the stadium hole at the Par 3 17th.

Yet, with just two players against the field, the odds are against someone from inside the world’s top-10 coming out on top.