Take the men’s final at Wimbledon; take the ninth stage of the Tour de France; take the British Grand Prix at Silverstone; take the final of the Cricket World Cup; take Meath and Donegal in Ballybofey or Kerry and Mayo in Killarney; take Cork and Kilkenny or Tipperary and Laois in Croke Park.
Take a seat, any seat, because mine will be vacant. I’ll be driving to Portrush for what my late brother, Raphael, used to call (rolling the R and mimicking a toffee-nosed Scot): “The Rrrrrrrroyal and Ayyyyyyncient Open Championship.”
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Well, it’s . . .
No, it’s . . .
I guess, it’s . . .
Ummm . . .
Yeah . . .
The Front Nine
It started with Eoghan O’Connell in 1991. I’d been sent to write a feature on how the once brilliantly-gifted amateur was struggling to transition as a pro and we met in a bar in Malahide – Gibney’s probably, or perhaps the Grand Hotel. It started well. I’d done my homework on his back story and his latest tournaments and missed cuts but began to flounder when he started talking about a problem with his swing.
This was Greek to me. I’d never been to a tournament, spoken to a professional, or considered the technique involved. Hitting a ball was like riding a bike – you never forgot – so you can imagine the confusion that ensued.
“Sorry, Eoghan, you said your swing?”
“What do you mean by swing?”
“What do I mean?”
“Yeah. What’s a swing?”
“What’s a swing?”
“Yeah. Do you not just pick up the club and hit the bloody thing?”
It was a miracle, looking back, that he didn’t walk out but I’ve always been grateful.
A year later. My first golf tournament is the 1992 Irish Open in Killarney and I’ve arranged an interview for Thursday afternoon. I dump my bag in the media centre, grab my tape recorder and notes and realise on the short walk to the clubhouse that the ‘play’ button has pressed and run the batteries down.
The pro-shop doesn’t sell batteries, but there’s a store in the tented village and I’m 15 minutes late when I sprint back to the locker room where my interview – a top player, admired far-and-wide for his wit and sense of fun – is sitting on a bench. “Batteries,” I blush, apologising profusely, but his good humour has deserted him and he’s heading for the range.
“Any chance we could do it later?” I inquire.
“It’s pretty tough for me here,” he says. “I’ve got stuff to do and people to meet. Ask what you want as we walk down.”
“What about tomorrow?” I plead. “We could find a quiet corner after your round?”
“No, let’s just get it over with.”
So we’re walking, and talking, on a small gravel path towards the range and in a frantic effort to grab his attention I remind him of a recent accident and a frightful brush with death.
“Imagine you had died in that helicopter crash last week? What would they have engraved on your tombstone?”
“I’m not answering that.”
“No, what I mean is . . .”
“I’m not going to answer that. Bang. Totally nil. Absolutely no.”
“Just in terms of your career,” I persist. “Have you realised your potential? Won as much as you deserve?”
“I’m very happy,” he says. “I did lots of things earlier in my life than most people, designed golf courses, a lot of golf clinics, worked with charities, I love being involved with people, especially if I can help. The game has been good to me.”
We reach the practice ground. He’s done talking. It is my first, and last, conversation with the man they call ‘Junior’.
The term is triple-bogey.
Three years later. It’s a Sunday evening in June 1995 and I’m watching the US Open at Shinnecock Hills on the BBC. Corey Pavin is winning. Alex Hey is commentating. “He’s only five feet nine,” he says, “and he doesn’t weigh much either, but he’s got a lot of courage.”
And I laugh and scratch my head. Courage! In golf!
The notion seems preposterous.
I’ve started playing the game. I’ve joined a club and taken lessons and am trying to build a swing. Eoghan O’Connell makes sense to me now. The talent required to make it, the mental fortitude and the nerves of steel, but I’m not really sure that courage applies.
When I think of courage in sport, I think of rain and snow and sleet and hail and stitches and sweat and snotty noses and bloodied sleeves; I think of pain and exhaustion and the triumph of the human spirit; I think of boxers and rowers and cyclists and jockeys and runners and swimmers and hurlers and footballers and mountaineers who spew their guts and put everything on the line.
Golfers fight in cashmere.
A week later, I commit these thoughts to a column: “Can you talk of courage in a golfing context?” and it’s a day after that when Paul McGinley calls. “You got that wrong,” he says.
It’s nine months later when I meet Harrington for the first time. It’s his first year as a pro, he’s made five cuts in five tournaments, and there’s something very different about him from the moment we shake hands. It’s a Tuesday afternoon in April ’96 – two days before the opening round of the Masters – and we’ve pulled up two chairs in the clubhouse at Stackstown.
“Will you watch?” I inquire.
“Probably,” he says. “I’ll certainly watch it at the weekend.”
“Only probably? I would have thought it was a must.”
“It’s a must for keen golfers but (as a professional) you try and distance yourself from the game when you’re not playing. In fairness, of the Majors, the Masters is the most attractive to watch. I certainly won’t miss Sunday night. And I will certainly watch the other rounds if I’m at home, but if I’m not, it won’t bother me. You are better off watching these guys in the flesh. Seve (Ballesteros) played in Morocco and I went and watched him play a few holes.”
“What are you looking for?”
“How they do it. What makes them tick. They are all so different.”
“Anything in particular strike you about Seve?”
“His presence. A phenomenal presence.”
“Will you be rooting for him at the Masters?”
“You’ve no favourites?”
“No, I’m not someone who automatically . . .”
“Hopes the big name wins?”
“Well, if the big name plays well I will be hoping that he wins. Or if the smaller guy plays well, I will be hoping that he wins. I’m not somebody who wants the underdog to win just because he’s the underdog. On Sunday evening I’ll have someone I will want to win, someone who is in contention. I’ll wait that late to make a decision, purely because of the fact that I will probably pick the guy who deserves to win. I’d want him to succeed.”
Had anyone ever deserved a green jacket more than Greg Norman? Probably not. In 1986, five years after he finished fourth on his debut, he had missed a par putt on 18 to take Jack Nicklaus into a play-off. A year later, he was denied by an outrageous chip from off the green by Larry Mize. He had finished fifth in ’88, third in ’89, sixth in ’92 and third in ’95 and had Pádraig, and pretty much everyone in his corner, when he led Nick Faldo by five on that Sunday in ’96.
I watched the final round in my brother’s house that night. We knew what it was to suffer, and had witnessed some crazy things during our time on the road, but nothing that compared to Greg Norman’s meltdown. It was brutal. Cruel. Repugnant.
We couldn’t look away.
I drove home that night and thought of what McGinley had said. He was right. There was more bleeding in golf than any other sport.
And now I was hooked.
A year later, my first Major was the 1997 Masters. Two months after that, I watched Ernie Els win the US Open at Congressional, Justin Leonard win the Open at Troon and Davis Love win the PGA Championship at Winged Foot. For the decade that followed that’s mostly how it was: Masters, US Open, Open, PGA; Masters, US Open, Open, PGA . . . until the summer of ’07, when the Open returned to Carnoustie.
And I was sent to the Tour de France.
The 14th stage that Sunday was from Mazamet to Plateau-de-Beille. I watched the start and drove ahead of the race towards the mountain-top finish, but spent most of the day listening to the radio and the coverage from Carnoustie. A good friend – and an avid golfer – lived just off the route near the town of Mirepoix.
She had a satellite dish, and was watching the BBC, so I abandoned the Tour and drove like crazy to her home. That’s where I was when Pádraig became the first Irishman since 1947 to win the Open. Thrilled. Elated. Buzzing.
And unsure whether to laugh or cry.
It was Faldo who introduced me to Rory. The month was February 2004, I was ghosting a series of his columns for The Sunday Times and had followed him to Palm Springs in California where he was hosting a camp at the Shadow Ridge golf resort for gifted kids being nurtured by his foundation. He asked if I would talk to them about dealing with the media – the only aspect of the game that had ever troubled him.
So we set up some chairs in a booth by the range and organised some one-on-ones . . .
And a mild-mannered 14-year-old from Holywood, Co Down.
“How does it feel to stand on the tee with Nick Faldo?” I ask.
“Pressure,” he smiles.
“And he’s such a big guy as well.”
“Yeah, and with what he’s accomplished . . . it’s unbelievable to have the chance to play with him. I’ve been a huge fan of his over the years – watched him win the Masters and the British Open – and never thought I’d have the chance to play with him.”
And now Rory is that man.
See, here’s the thing; I remember the day Pádraig won his first major at Carnoustie and his second at Birkdale and his third at Oakland Hills. I remember the day Graeme McDowell won at Pebble and Darren Clarke won at Sandwich and when Rory won at Congressional, Kiawah Island, Hoylake and Valhalla. I remember those days, all of them, but what I remember most is that I wasn’t there. Not for any of them. I have never seen an Irishman win a Major.
But what if this was the year?
(To be continued)
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