McGinley hoping to do the double


Paul McGinley is in an unusual position this week: he has to defend a title. On the two occasions he has won on the European Tour - at the Austrian Open and the Oki Pro-Am - a jinx of sorts struck, and both events weren't staged again. But McGinley enters the £108,000 Smurfit Irish PGA Championship, which starts at Powerscourt today, as the man in possession, even if he is a mite disappointed with his recent form.

"To be honest, I wish my form was a bit better heading into the defence," he said. "Of course, it is nice to be the holder, but I played poorly in the Dunhill Cup last week and, hopefully, things will improve here."

The omens are favourable though, given that he used last year's win at Fota Island as the catalyst for his Oki win and, then, the World Cup success in partnership with Padraig Harrington.

Certainly, the course, which measures 7,063 yards with a par of 72, has been set up as a severe test. "I can see players having some difficulties on the greens," admitted Harrington, who set out his stall by winning the professionals' prize in yesterday's pro-am with a 71, a shot ahead of Damien Mooney.

Apart from Darren Clarke, who is competing in the World Matchplay championship in Wentworth, all of Ireland's regular touring professionals have shown their appreciation for the sponsorship which makes this the richest national championship in Europe by descending on the Wicklow foothills.

Indeed, recent history suggests that the eventual winner will emerge from this band of men who are most acquainted with tournament golf. Des Smyth, for instance, is chasing a sixth title - "That would be nice, wouldn't it?" he agreed - Philip Walton is a four-time winner, and Eamonn Darcy has won twice.

It is a championship, however, which has constantly eluded Christy O'Connor Jnr, but it is a sign of how dear he holds the event to his heart that he is competing this week. It will be his first competitive appearance since the tragic death in a road accident of his son, Darren.

Everyone is expecting a demanding four days, with the quest for the £16,600 top prize a real incentive. The Powerscourt course, designed by Peter McEvoy and opened in 1996, is the seventh course to play host to the championship since 1990 and the greens could well decide the eventual champion.

"The greens are very difficult," said McGinley. "If the wind blows, it will be a very tough test."

The winner is likely to come from the regular tour players, consisting of McGinley, Harrington, Walton, Smyth, Darcy, Raymond Burns and David Higgins, while John McHenry - who has secured his tour card for next season - will be seeking to improve on his tied-second position last year.

The main challengers from the local club professionals should come from Damien McGrane, Robert Giles and Stephen Hamill.