Padraig Harrington has been getting all the accolades – and rightly so – for winning two Majors in 2008, but he isn’t the sole reason why Irish golf has had its most memorable season.
Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy, Damien McGrane and Peter Lawrie aren’t exactly marquee names in the gentlemen’s game. However, they have all contributed hugely in making the past year one to cherish for all Irish golf fans. And their accomplishments over the last 12 months deserve some recognition.
McDowell had a career year, making a successful first Ryder Cup appearance – albeit in a losing cause – as well as winning two European Tour events (the Ballantine’s Open in Korea in March and the Barclays Scottish Open in July) and climbing to 31st in the World Rankings.
Clarke, probably the best-known of Harrington’s fellow Irish professionals, was to say the least rejuvenated this past year. Golf had taken a backseat to his family life when his wife Heather lost her battle with cancer in the summer of 2006. The Northern Irishman put on a brave face and played a key role as Ian Woosnam’s European side beat the USA in the Ryder Cup that September at the K Club, but understandingly he then cut down his schedule over the next year and a half to spend more time with his two sons.
The popular Ulsterman showed he was back to his old self with a joint third place in the South African Airways Open last December. When he claimed the BMW Asian Open in April, he ended a five-year span without a European Tour title and, for safe measure, he added another win at the KLM Open in August where he held off his close friend and fellow Irishman Paul McGinley.
While Harrington’s successful defense of his British Open crown at Royal Birkdale in July and his historical win in the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills less than a month later are the undeniable high points of Irish golf in 2008, there were other glorious moments.
During a three-week stretch in April-May, the Irish reigned supreme on the European Tour as McGrane, Clarke and Lawrie won the three tournaments played in that period of time.
Meath native McGrane captured his maiden Tour win at the Volvo China Open while Dubliner Lawrie – the 2003 European Tour Rookie of the Year – did likewise at the Open de Espana, by defeating crowd favourite Ignacio Garrido in a play-off no less.
As for McIlroy, a tie for second place at the UBS Hong Kong Open last weekend propelled him from 63rd to 50th in the world rankings. At 19 years and 202 days, he is the youngest player ever to make it into the top 50, breaking Sergio Garcia’s record by just over two weeks.
The native of Holywood in Ulster has only been a professional for 14 months now and, after a slow start, he has come on strong in the latter part of 2008, with two second place finishes and only lost out on the Rookie of the Year award to Spain’s Pablo Larrazabal.
When asked about McIlroy’s potential, his ‘colleagues’ Harrington and McDowell are pretty unanimous: he is well ahead of the curve and it’s only a matter of when (rather than if) he gets his maiden title.
By the time the 2008 season came to an end last month, all six of the leading men of Irish golf (Harrington, McDowell, Clarke, McGinley, McGrane and Lawrie in that order) finished inside the top 40 in the last European Order of Merit.
All in all then, a most successful year for Irish golfers, one which perhaps will prove hard to match – or even improve on. However, there’s no doubt they will all be up to the challenge.