Irish Open: ‘Winker’ Watson and Team Clarke show mettle in adversity

Stephen Ferris and Shane Warne show skills not confined to rugby and cricket

Stephen Watson managed to record a par and two spectators on the front nine. The face of BBC Sport Northern Ireland was persecuted by a misbehaving driver and his playing partners, European Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke, Australian cricket icon Shane Warne, and former Lions and Ireland rugby international Stephen Ferris.

"Winker", as he is affectionately known, could escape neither the cloying rough nor the relentless ribbing of his golfing acolytes during yesterday's Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Pro-Am at Royal County Down. His slice replaced George Hook, a late withdrawal from the original line-up.

A low point, literally and figuratively, was his tee shot on the second hole, that came out of the heel of the driver, the trajectory like a grouse skimming over the heather; it just missed decapitating two spectators, whose expressions might politely be described as startled.

He wasn’t alone. The crisp morning air was punctured by frequent cries of “fore”, forcing galleries to take evasive action from dimpled, white missiles. There was no safe vantage point, just some that were less dangerous.


A freshening breeze rendered the noble Newcastle links even more foreboding for the amateurs, already spooked by blind shots to ribbons of undulating fairways in a hinterland of shin-high rough and cavernous sand traps. Those who hit to the wrong part of tiny greens were penalised, those who missed them, traumatised.

Mischievous glint

The course imposes a high tariff on the short game, demanding a steely nerve, imagination and an exquisite touch with putter and wedge. Getting on the card early – there was one score to count at each hole – is an anxiety suppressant. Watson had to wait until the ninth.

In the interim he was mercilessly teased – Clarke, a mischievous glint never far away, at one point shouting “fore” on his playing partner’s downswing to the par three, seventh. The ball careered through the green.

It was good natured banter for a group that was popular with the crowds, stopping for “selfies”, autographs and the occasional snatched conversation with friends and acquaintances. Watson bore his haranguing with a smile, a shrug and the occasional pure strike. The galleries, once the laughter subsided, were sympathetic.

Abbreviated backswing

There was the occasional golf shot to savour. Ferris, playing off a 14 handicap having recently swapped Edenmore Golf Club for Royal Portrush, drove for show, impressively powerful despite an abbreviated backswing, and putted . . . well he occasionally putted more often than he would have liked.

He still contributed handsomely on the card and showed enough game to suggest that a single digit handicap won’t be too far away. The 29-year-old was forced to retire from rugby last year due to an ankle injury, a brilliant career unfortunately cut short. The upside, more time for golf.

Warne, who in 2000 was named as one of Wisden’s five cricketers of the century and who took over 1000 wickets in international cricket before retiring from all forms of the game in 2013, is an impressive 11 handicap, drawing the odd compliment from European Ryder Cup captain Clarke.

By the time they’d reached the turn, the mountains of Mourne were obscured by low slung, black cloud and the rain descended with a vengeance. The afternoon starters had to handle the worst of the weather before the blue skies reappeared by 4.30pm. It was a temporary injunction against the inclement weather.

Team Clarke demonstrated their mettle in adversity, in returning a score of 17 under to finish third from the morning starters and claim a prize.

PS: The team entered by The Irish Times was unavailable for comment.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer