Ireland Takes Center Stage

Golfing in the Portstewart Golf Club, County Londonderry

By Philip Reid, Contributor
August / September 2006

To be sure, the wait has been worth it. Every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year that Ireland has had to be patient before being bestowed with the favor of playing host to the 2006 Ryder Cup has been worth it.

Now, with the great match in its sights, Ireland — one giant golf course — is ready to make the 36th edition of the Ryder Cup the greatest match ever. Which is saying some- thing, given how many times this biennial golfing joust between Europe and the United States has ensured a rush of adrena- lin inside and outside of the ropes, and given how it has evolved into the greatest golfing duel on the planet.

When the 2006 Ryder Cup takes place at The K Club in Straffan, Co. Kildare, on 22nd-24th September, Europe will attempt to claim this most prized of golf’s team trophies for an unprecedented third consecu- tive time. It promises to be one heck of a shindig. Some 45,000 patrons a day will pack into the Arnold Palmer-designed course and that number could have been multiplied ten or a hundred-fold if the logis- tics would have allowed.

Dr. Michael Smurfit, who owns the golf course, once joked that those who hadn’t managed to obtain tickets in the public lottery would swim across the River Liffey — the waterway that has its source in the Wicklow mountains and which runs through the rich farmland of Kildare before exiting into the Irish Sea in Dublin, the country’s capital — to gain entry to the course. That won’t happen. Just in case those who haven’t got tickets are tempted to somehow find a way in, some 2.7km (two miles) of perimeter fencing will be erected around the course!

Ireland, literally, can’t wait for the match. Throughout the history of the Ryder Cup, Ireland has provided more than its fair share of players.

Many of them turned out to be heroes. Men like Eamonn Darcy at Muirfield Village in Ohio in 1987; like Christy O’Connor Junior at The Belfry in England in 1989; or like Philip Walton at Oak Hill in Rochester, NY, in 1995. And before them all was Christy O’Connor Senior, who played in ten successive matches up to 1973, a record that was only bettered by Nick Faldo.

An indication of Ireland’s rich association with the Ryder Cup is that An Post, Ireland’s national postal service provider, has issued a special edition of stamps featur- ing a number of Irish players who have played in the match down the years. “It is only fitting that we take this opportunity to acknowledge and pay tribute to the enormous contribution that they have made to this great event down the years,” government minister Mr. Noel Dempsey said at the launch of the stamps.

“An Post, in their Commemorative Stamp Programme for 2005 and 2006 are paying tribute to the Ryder Cup and the great Irish golfers who have added so much to the competition.”

The Irish have become smitten with the Ryder Cup, and Tourism Ireland has used it as a powerful marketing tool in enticing overseas golfers to visit a country which has over 440 courses and possesses fully one- third of all the links courses on the planet. Ireland is recognized as one of the world’s great golfing destinations, and in 2005 was awarded the “International Destination of the Year” by the International Golf Tour Operators Association.

Throughout the island of Ireland, there are wonderful golf courses. The most famed are the traditional seaside links courses, those like Ballybunion and Waterville, Lahinch and Portmarnock, Royal County Down and Royal Portrush. But visitors have discovered hidden jewels too, with the North-West region of Donegal and Sligo offering some magnificent courses that have been kept a secret by the Irish for a long time. Now that the secret is out, an increasing number of tourists are discovering the delights of courses like Ballyliffin, Rossapenna and Murvagh in Co. Donegal, and Enniscrone and Rosses Point in Co Sligo.

Ireland has proven itself to be a very successful host to big tournaments. The World Golf Championship-American Express Championship was twice played at Mount Juliet in Co Kilkenny, won in 2002 by Tiger Woods and in 2004 by Ernie Els. The Smurfit European Open, one of the PGA European Tour’s flagship tournaments, has played at The K Club since 1995 and the Nissan Irish Open is one of the oldest tour- naments on the European circuit. It was first played in 1927, ironically the same year as the first Ryder Cup match was played at Worcester Country Club, Massachusetts.

For the match in Ireland in September, Padraig Harrington — who along with Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley was one of three Irish players on the past two winning Ryder Cup teams — expects those American visitors who make the transatlantic trip to be enthralled by what they find.

“We have quite an affinity with the United States,” said Harrington. “A lot of the Americans travelling will have Irish backgrounds, and I think a lot of the Irish supporters will support the European team strongly but will be very encouraging and respectful of the US team …. many Irish fans are particular fans of the American players, of Tiger (Woods), Phil (Mickelson), and many others. They will all get a good wel- come. I will see the crowd as being very loud, very supporting and very fair.”

Harrington also anticipates that the United States team will be motivated to win on Irish soil. “The fact we won the last two matches gives the Americans the momentum to come out and play good golf, (to) play strong.”

Whether or not the USA can reclaim the trophy remains to be seen, but Ireland is determined to make it one hell of a party . . . with the wee matter of a golf match amid the festivities. After all, Ireland has had to wait its time to be awarded the right to play host to the Ryder Cup; and the intention is that the world and its mother will remember it for all the right reasons. ♦

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