How American golf was tamed once more by the Celtic Tigers
Tiger Woods may have been well-and-truly tamed going into 2011, but that did not mean that it was going to be a dull year. In fact, quite the opposite, it was to be one of the most exciting years the sport has seen since Woods’ era of domination began in the late 90’s.
Finally the time had come for the elite of the game to step out of Tiger’s shadow and show the world just how good they could be. We were yet to see the true talents of a young prodigy, or the career-defining moment of a veteran. We would be treated to both in the space of a month in mid-summer.
The game had been dominated by those on the other side of the pond for so many years. Tiger had led Mickelson, Furyk and company to world domination for well over a decade. But with his incredible and truly unbelievable fall from grace, the rest of the world could smell blood. American golf was now a wounded animal, and it cowered under the pressure of the rest of the world, no more so than that applied from our little island.
Darren Clarke said this year that it was Padraig Harrington’s run of three major victories in two years which sparked the success which has followed from other Irish golfers, rather than it being merely a Northern revolution. And he couldn’t have been more right. Harrington’s A-game has long deserted him, but for 18 months he was the most dangerous player in golf, sometimes incapable of finding the fairway for rounds at a time, yet somehow still shooting five or six under par. His way of getting it done was inspiring to watch, and the rest of the gang were not going to let this inspiration go to waste.
Go back to April this year, Sunday morning at Augusta National. A teen prodigy had seemed to have come of age. Rory McIlroy held a four shot lead going into the final round of the most prestigious tournament in golf, the Masters. He remained level-headed and steady beyond his years on the front nine, remaining four shots clear of the pack. But then something remarkable happened in the short walk from the ninth green to the tenth tee- McIlroy came down with a curious case of Benjamin Button and de-matured several years in just a few minutes.
What followed was astonishing. McIlroy’s back nine was one of the worst ever seen by the cameras at Augusta. His wayward drives were taking him to parts of the famous golf course never before seen on television, and his puttiing quite simply deserted him completely. You could actually physically see the man which had developed over the last three days become a boy once more in the space of only a couple of hours.
The two-foot putt he missed on the 12th summed it all up, and his reaction spoke louder than a thousand words. Leaning on his putter, a look of pure disbelief on his young face, he looked like a lost boy. He ended up shooting 80 for the round and finished well off the pace of eventual winner, South African Charl Schwartzel.
To those looking in from the outside, the implosion looked likely to set McIlroy back years in his progression to the top of the game. But inside, the young prodigy decided that it would act as the polar opposite. It forced him to mature to the stage where just two months later he would annihilate all in his path to cruise to the US Open title, posting a record total for the tournament and breaking countless other records along the way. The Northern Irishman was simply stunning as he delivered the final nail in the coffin of American golf in the yanks’ own back yard.
And then there was the Open Championship at Sandwich, and the moment Darren Clarke finally realised his enormous potential. It was truly a moment no golf fan will ever forget. Whether you were Irish or not did not matter this time. Everyone loves Darren Clarke. It is that simple.
In the wind and the sweeping rain, Clarke made some incredible shots and rode some incredible luck to hold off Thomas Bjorn and new American prodigy Rickie Fowler to pick up his first Major championship, and Northern Ireland’s third in 12 months. His form since has seen him finish right at the bottom of the standings in more than one event, but he and everyone in Ireland will only remember one thing when they think of Darren Clarke in 2011-sitting in the Open Championship press conference after winning, with a pint of Guinness in his hand and an infectious smile on his face.
It was simply another stunning year for Irish golf. And although the year finished with two Englishmen at the summit of the world rankings, and Luke Donald holding off McIlroy to top both the American and European tour money lists, 2011 was still a golden year for the Irish. And with McIlroy finishing the year strongly and Graeme McDowell coming back to some form, who knows, maybe 2012 will see Irish golf tame the Tiger for another year.