Paul McGinley’s caddie missed his flight from Scotland, upended by a wicked hangover and an alarm clock banjaxed by dead batteries. Waiting in Kiawah Island, host venue for the 1997 World Cup of Golf, McGinley was miffed but not furious; on a sliding scale of Irish World Cup fiascos, this was Yin to Saipan’s Yang. No panic.
Pádraig Harrington was McGinley’s partner on the Ireland team and his caddie, Johnny Reilly, happened upon Alan Kelly, a caddie from Bantry, who had been due to carry Mike Weir’s bag before a last minute change of plan. Without even buying a ticket, Kelly had won the lottery.
It captured the mood of a dreamy week. For McGinley and Harrington playing in the United States was a still a novelty. Even though they were both winners on the European Tour, that status lost altitude as it crossed the Atlantic. Was there an Irish golfer who was famous in the United States? Not back then. No Irish golfer had won a big in 50 years, or won on the PGA Tour for that matter.
“They weren’t the marquee names of the 43rd World Cup of Golf,” began the final day report on the Associated Press newswire “nor were they the flashiest players,” winding up to a glorious “But”. That week Harrington and McGinley flattened a stellar field, like skittles: as a pair, they won the team event by four shots; on the individual leaderboard, both of them finished in the top five.
“I can’t emphasise enough how good the dynamic was between us,” says Harrington now. “Paul was definitely the senior player, he captained it. He played perfect tee to green, never out of position – and I was all over the place, getting up and down from everywhere.
“I marvelled at his game and he certainly marvelled at mine. He couldn’t understand that I was shooting the score that I was shooting playing the way I was – without getting flustered by it. I was making some miraculous up and downs, as if this wasn’t unusual. Even though there was drama in what I was doing, there was no drama in me. I didn’t need to play great to shoot a good score. That wasn’t my personality.”
The greatest thing in my whole golf career was that I had no judgement. I didn’t think you were meant to do stuff, or not do stuff. I didn’t question that. I just did it— Pádraig Harrington
That tournament no longer exists but, at the time, it was laden with history and prestige. Harry Bradshaw and Christy O’Connor, two of Ireland’s greatest ever players, had been the only other Irish winners, 39 years earlier. “It was huge,” says McGinley. “It was a big title, a big field – a huge win. Everyone can recognise the two words, ‘World Cup.’ It transcends sport.”
On this week, 25 years ago, they returned home to a Government reception, hosted by the Minister for Sport, Jim McDaid, and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. Only a couple of months earlier Ireland had secured the right to stage the Ryder Cup for the first time, which would have been characterised as a triumph for Irish golf too, an acknowledgment of our standing in the game, at least through our lens.
Was that World Cup the start of something? Who knows for sure? Climate change takes time.
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Last Sunday, at half-time in the opening game of the World Cup, in a galaxy far away, Leona Maguire was leading the richest Tour championship in the history of the LPGA Tour; at the same time, Seamus Power was sitting at the top of the leaderboard in an $8m event in Georgia, consolidating his early season lead in the FedEx Cup. A few hours earlier, Rory McIlroy, the undisputed world number one, topped the money list on the DP World Tour, to put alongside the money title he had already won on the PGA Tour.
None of them won the tournaments they were contesting on Sunday, yet it felt like one of the greatest days in the history of Irish golf. For any of them to win, or all of them to win, didn’t require a leap of imagination. By Monday, when the juice had been separated from the pulp, Maguire had jumped to number 11 in the world, making her the highest ranked European on the list; in the Ryder Cup standings, McIlroy, Shane Lowry and Power, all occupied automatic qualifying spots from inside the world’s top 30.
Without defacing the memory of the great players of the past, the golden age of Irish golf is here now, and has been with us for some time. In the 15 years since Harrington won his first British Open, only American players have accumulated more big titles than Ireland’s tally of 10; South Africa sit a distant third on that list with four. In any debate about Ireland’s global standing in the game, that killer metric wasn’t available to other generations. In Irish golf, the tip of the iceberg is a more populated space than ever before.
To reach this point, though, everybody stood on somebody’s shoulders. “Peer groups are really important,” says McGinley. On tour, Irish players have always taken shelter in that fellowship. When Harrington came on tour there were about 15 hardened, established pros with Des Smyth as the patriarch. “If there was a row in the camp,” says Harrington. “Des sorted it. If there was a player getting down on himself, Des was the one saying, ‘We’ve got to look after him.’”
But that environment was competitive too. They drove each other. Even during their glorious week in Kiawah Island, McGinley knew that Harrington was trying to beat him. “That’s his competitive nature – even though we were on the same team.” In the event, McGinley finished one shot ahead. Not wanting to lose either.
When it came to the majors, though, generations of Irish players had failed. What Fred Daly achieved in the 1947 Open had become a cherished, museum piece. In the majors, Irish golf needed another pathfinder. “I was in the beautiful position that I knew no better,” says Harrington. “The greatest thing in my whole golf career was that I had no judgment. I didn’t think you were meant to do stuff, or not do stuff. I didn’t question that. I just did it. I often said, I played like I was wearing blinkers. That got me across the line in majors.
“For the guys that followed, it was a big help to see that I had broken that glass ceiling. Now, all of a sudden, Irish pros can win majors. The guys that played with me they understood that they were the same as me, they were as good as me, they had the same amateur careers. It makes it much more realistic. You wonder would Rory have won majors anyway, he was on a different path. But certainly the other guys who won, breaking that ceiling was a big help to them.”
Below the shiny surface of the Irish players on tour, there are layers upon layers. When the Golfing Union of Ireland appointed John Garner as the first full-time coach for their elite panels, McGinley and Darren Clarke were in his original batch of players, nearly 40 years ago. McGinley rhymes off the list of Garner’s successors: David Jones, Howard Bennett, Pete Cowen and now Neil Manchip, an unbroken chain of careful, expert, passionate tuition.
Manchip was only in the job a year when he brought McIlroy, Power and Lowry to the 2006 European Youth Championships; a year after that, McIlroy and Lowry played on a team that won the European Amateur title. Whatever talent and ambition they already possessed, they still needed something that the system could give them. On the final day of the 2007 European Amateur, McIlroy lost both of his matches. Whatever you might think, there are no certainties.
Manchip has been Lowry’s coach throughout his professional career, but he remains Golf Ireland’s High Performance Director too. Their work takes place under a big umbrella. For example, this week 10 Irish players on golf programmes in American universities will meet for a four-day training camp in Florida, run by two Golf Ireland coaches. All parties are committed to that ongoing connection.
“As long as our support structures are good,” says Manchip, “we should be doing well in at least one area of our talent pathway. And now and again it really peaks in a certain area.”
And even then, who knows? When Britain and Ireland won the Walker Cup in 2015, there were five Irish players on the team. Of those, only Gary Hurley has a card for the DP World Tour next season; three of the others have been to that level, and dropped down.
“It’s always swings and roundabouts,” says Harrington. “Two years ago, people would have been moaning, ‘Where are the next wave of players coming from?’ Now you have John Murphy, Tom McKibben and Gary Hurley with their cards for next year, three very, very strong prospects. We needed that again in Europe.”
A fortnight ago Harrington finished a brilliant debut season on the Champions Tour, following a trail that Des Smyth had blazed many years ago: second on the money list, four wins, including the US Seniors Open. “I like the fact,” he says “that I’m a big fish in a small pond. I’m in contention every week.” Still pushing.
Last Sunday he was free to watch telly, mesmerised by Maguire. “We have guys playing all around the world,” says Harrington, “but what’s really changed is Leona. That’s the biggest change, to have somebody as competitive as her on the LPGA Tour. She’s very, very good. She doesn’t have the power of some of the others, but she has a great short game. In some ways she reminds me of myself. She just gets the job done – whatever it takes.”
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First prize for the 1997 World Cup was $200,000 each. At the time, a king’s ransom. “The money,” says McGinley, “was life-changing.”
“To this day, every time I go to London,” says Harrington, “Paul invites me to stay in his house. But for a long time he would say, ‘You can stay in the room you paid for.’ As in, the money we won in Kiawah.”
The funny thing was that they were partners in that event for nine more years, without ever recapturing what they had in the beginning. “It’s interesting,” says Harrington. “Our partnership fizzled out a few years later when I became more dominant. It just didn’t work. What amazes me was how good we were when Paul was the boss. Anyway, since then, myself and Paul are forever bonded.”