Northern Ireland

Fairway to heaven - the rude health of NI golf

Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy
Image caption Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy celebrate being part of the victorious Europe Ryder Cup team at Celtic Manor

Three years ago in a seaside town on the east of Scotland, middle-aged men collectively choked on their morning porridge.

Clad in their freshly laundered pyjamas, they had gone to the doormat to happily collect the latest issue of respected American magazine, Golf Digest.

Sitting at the breakfast table, they idly flicked through to be suddenly confronted by a feature article which was particularly hard to swallow.

The magazine no longer considered the Old Course at St Andrew's - billed as the 'Home of Golf' - the best course outside the US.

Royal County Down was now the world number one.

Such judgements are of course subjective. But Royal Portrush's appearance at number four in the list demonstrated a trend.

In what is now a massive global tourist industry, Northern Ireland had the all-round game to compete at the highest level.

Waves

For a country with a population the size of a medium-sized English city, it is not a shock to learn that Northern Ireland has not always produced the talent to match its world class greens and fairways.

Prior to 2010, Northern Ireland had to go back to 1947 for its last major winner, Fred Daly at the British Open.

In the 80s and 90s, professionals like Ronan Rafferty and David Feherty competed solidly on the European Tour, sometimes winning tournaments and occasionally producing the odd flash of brilliance, like Rafferty's march to the top of the European Order of Merit in 1989.

Achievement at the very apex of sport tends to come in sporadic bursts for Northern Ireland. The soccer team qualified for the World Cup in 1982 and 1986 but not since while its two top snooker players Dennis Taylor and Alex Higgins both won the World Championships in the early 80s.

If winning does come in waves, then the last decade in golf has been a tsunami of success.

First there was Darren Clarke, competing fiercely at the upper end of the leaderboard in major tournaments and proving a stalwart for Europe in the Ryder Cup.

Clarke proved there was life beyond the mediocrity of the odd win on the European Tour, issuing an invitation to the top table that has been hungrily snatched by both Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy.

Image caption Rory McIlroy competed in his first Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor

This year, McDowell has squeezed every drop of his talent out of its tube, his winning performances at the US Open and the Ryder Cup demonstrating the sort of mental strength and character not always associated with European golfers.

Gauntlet

He has thrown down the gauntlet to his 21-year-old friend McIlroy who many of the game's sages believe has the potential not only to be one of Northern Ireland's greatest golfers but one of the best the game has ever seen.

Erstwhile Tiger Woods coach Butch Harmon has identified the Holywood wizard as one of the main threats to his former charge's supremacy at the top of the sport.

McIlroy already has several top-ten finishes in major tournaments and at 21 is only a baby in golf terms.

At the Ryder Cup opening ceremony on Thursday, it was repeatedly impressed upon the audience how important the tournament was to the worldwide image of Wales.

The Welsh hope the event will help drive golf dollars and yen to its facilities.

However, there is no better advertisement for a country's golf courses than its own players competing at the top level.

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the hosting of the Open at Royal Portrush, the only course outside Scotland and England to have hosted the famous old event.

With "G-Mac" and McIlroy putting NI golf on the map like never before, might a return to Northern Ireland in the near future be too much to hope for?

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