DUBLIN, Ireland — What is it about Northern Ireland, which is about a 10th of the size of New York State and has about a 10th of the population, that it currently produces so many world class golfers?
Graeme McDowell from Portrush, County Antrim, has just won the U.S. Open championship at Pebble Beach, Calif., the first European to lift the title in 40 years.
Wonder kid Rory McIlroy from Holywood, County Down, broke the course record with a 10 under par 62 when winning the Quail Hollow Championship in Charlotte, N.C., on May 2 — becoming the only player other than Tiger Woods to come in first in a PGA tour event prior to his 21st birthday.
And in Dungannon, County Tyrone, they still talk about the day in February 2000, when local man Darren Clarke beat Tiger Woods 4 and 3 at La Costa in California to become the first European to win a world match play golf championship.
As a native of Northern Ireland and erstwhile amateur golfer myself, I can provide a few clues to this phenomenon.
First, practically everyone in the estimated population of 1.8 million plays golf at some time or other, whether it be on the local “pitch and putt” course, or as a member of one of 90 or so full-size courses which include championship links located along the windswept coastline. The pitch and putt concept was popularized first in Ireland and involves little more than a tin hut and a string of par three holes which are played with one iron and a putter.
Secondly, golf clubs in Northern Ireland are not “country clubs,” as they are known in the United States, with all the elitism that that name implies. They are mostly egalitarian and affordable. With one or two exceptions, the general rule is that champions of industry mingle with bricklayers, and they compete together and socialize afterward.
Green fees in this corner of the Emerald Isle are also cheap compared to the rest of the world. A round of golf at the Valley course attached to Royal Portrush Golf Club costs a mere 25 pounds ($37). Compare that with $495 for 18 holes at Pebble Beach in California.
“Not only does Northern Ireland have excellent courses and opportunities for young people to participate in golf, there are excellent coaching facilities,” said Robbie Doherty, twice captain of Rathmore Golf Club which produced McDowell. “The result is self-evident.”
On the island of Ireland there are more than 200 coaching centers for young people, according to the Golfing Union of Ireland, many located in Northern Ireland. Rathmore — which means large fort in Irish — is the town club affiliated to Royal Portrush Golf Club. It mostly draws its membership from local people, while Royal Portrush Golf Club attracts a more far-flung and well-heeled membership.
I grew up beside the Royal Co Down Golf Course in the town of Newcastle in the southeast of Northern Ireland, which also has an affiliated “artisan club” known as the Mourne Golf Club. It uses the same championship links and is open to townspeople such as shopkeepers and bank clerks (my father, a school teacher, was captain half a century ago).
I recall that some of the best golfers in town were long-term unemployed men who spent weekdays — on Saturdays and Sundays Royal County Down members had priority — competing with each other at a high level on a links once rated by Golf Digest as the best course in the world outside the U.S.
Doherty points out that Graeme McDowell started his career on a nine-hole pitch and putt course in Portrush before graduating to Rathmore Club where his father Kenny McDowell is a stalwart member.
As with Rory McIlroy, McDowell has a father who witnessed first-class golf being played at his club every day and saw no reason why his talented boys couldn’t challenge the best in America if given special tuition. Following the progress of Northern Ireland’s golfing heroes as they take on the likes of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in the U.S. means many late nights for their legions of fans on this side of the Atlantic.
Because of the time difference, members of Rathmore had to wait until the early hours of Monday in the clubhouse to see on television their world-famous alumnus winning the U.S. Open in California on Sunday evening.
It was 2.30 a.m. in Northern Ireland when the game ended. Under local licensing laws the bar had closed at 10 p.m. Admitted Doherty, a former police officer: “We had only soft drinks during the game. But when Graeme sank the winning putt, we broke out the Champagne.”