It takes a bit of persuasion to remind even discerning Americans that the Ryder Cup has never been to Ireland before. Even if the biennial contest has been up and running for nearly 80 years, and even if the legendary Christy O’Connor Sr., his nephew Christy O’Connor Jr., Eamonn Darcy, Philip Walton and, of late, Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley, have played key roles in the matches, Ireland has reveled in the Ryder Cup, but has never hosted it.
Since the Britain and Ireland team morphed into Europe in 1979 – Jack Nicklaus’s suggestion saved the concept from probable extinction as America had dominated to a predictable degree in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s – the event has grown in status. For most of Europe’s home matches, the Belfry in the English midlands was chosen for its large hotel and its geographical suitability, if not for its golf course, and in deference to the contribution of the great Seve Ballesteros, Valderrama in southern Spain staged the 1997 showdown.
But despite the fact that Scotland, and to a slightly lesser extent Ireland, are regarded as the combined cradle of golf in Europe, lovers of the game in both countries either had to travel to the Ryder Cup or watch it on television.
Not before time, that is about to change. All roads lead to the K Club in county Kildare this September where Europe will be looking to win for a record third time in succession, and later, the matches go to Gleneagles in Scotland in 2014.
If there is some regret, and not a little irony, that Ireland’s first Ryder Cup is being played on an American style stadium course, designed by Arnold Palmer, rather than on one of the island’s traditional, trademark links such as Portmarnock or Royal Portrush or Royal Co. Down, the Ryder Cup has long since ceased to be a casual knockabout.
Not alone is the competition intense – many people will find it hard to forget the controversy at the Country Club near Boston in 1999 which still lingers to this day – but the event is now a cash-cow for both the European Tour and for the PGA of America. And in the realm of big business, a private members club such as Portmarnock was never going to be at the races when it came to landing the Ryder Cup.
Instead, the honor and glory has gone to K Club, and its wealthy owner Michael Smurfit, who put his money where his mouth was some years ago. Smurfit gave one of the European Tour’s flagship tournaments, the European Open, a home at the K Club when it badly needed a home, and as Smurfit and his packaging company continued to back Irish golf, there was always a strong chance that some return would come their way.
While the K Club is about as traditionally Irish as apple pie and cream and Monday night football, it is a magnificent facility. With its two championship courses – the more established Palmer course will stage the Ryder Cup – and its luxurious hotel, September’s matches are most definitely in good and experienced hands.
And when the GAA decides to move one of its All Ireland finals to avoid a clash of dates, then you know for sure that the Ryder Cup is going to be big. There has been some criticism that Europe is just a flag of convenience, and that support for the continent is a poor relation of support for one’s mother country, yet the rivalry, and the desire to beat the best players from America is simply hard to fathom.
Winners of four of the last five matches, and coming off a humiliation of the Americans at Oakland Hills in 2004, Europe are favorites this time. Strange when Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson appear to be streets ahead of anything Europe can offer at present, that collective will continues to overcome individual brilliance.
There was talk once again at Augusta that for all Europe’s Ryder Cup success, its players are coming up short at the tournaments that will really count when the history of golf is being written. When images of European players celebrating yet another success over the USA are now commonplace, it is sobering that no player from this side of the pond has won a major championship since 1999.
When Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam and Jose Maria Olazabal were in their pomp, there was a guarantee that Europe would win majors and would be highly competitive when the Ryder Cup came around. Now Europe is highly competitive at the Ryder Cup, but has not won a major since Paul Lawrie – who? – took the British Open nearly seven years ago.
If the likes of Harrington, Clarke and McGinley, who along with the emerging Graeme McDowell, are the main contenders for Irish representation on this Ryder Cup team, would bristle at the suggestion that they were more concerned about being remembered for their exploits within Team Europe than on an individual front, the wait for a European major triumph has gone on a bit too long.
There are three majors left before the Ryder Cup – the US Open at Winged Foot, the British Open at Hoylake and the USPGA at Medinah – and this would be as good a year for someone to buck the trend. And if it’s not going to be an Irish player who wins a major for the first time since 1947, any European would do.
Pro rugby comes of age
There has been an e-mail doing the rounds that claims that Leinster are sending back most of their ticket allocation for Sunday’s eagerly awaited European Cup rugby semi-final against Munster because one of the more fashionable stores on Dublin’s Grafton Street is holding a half-price sale the same day.
If nothing could be farther from the truth, anyone who has witnessed the burgeoning rivalry between the two Irish provinces knows what lies behind the e-mail. This is not just a mouthwatering contest on the pitch, it’s a clash of cultures off it.
Munster have often felt themselves hard done by. They saw a Dublin-centered rugby administration that favored Leinster when Leinster didn’t deserve favoritism. In truth, it’s hard to find evidence of bias, but Munster fed off the perception that they got the short end of the stick, and that was that.
The chip on the Munster rugby shoulder was not to be laughed off. If their greatest victory came in 1978 over New Zealand at Thomond Park, in the days when players took a few hours off work to prepare, the rise and rise of Munster has coincided with the advent of the professional game.
When touring teams from New Zealand and Australia would make all too fleeting visits to either Limerick or Cork, the Munster identity would bubble and then subside again. It fermented in the early days of the All Ireland club league when Shannon, Garryowen, Cork Constitution and Young Munster took the competition by storm and regularly kicked sand in the faces in the best that Leinster and Ulster could come up with.
But when pay for play arrived, along with the European Cup, teams from England, France, Wales and Scotland would have to risk their manhood in Munster’s backyard. Thomond Park became a crucible, and then when Munster beat mighty Toulouse in a never-to-be-forgotten semi-final in Bordeaux in 2000, the province’s traveling supporters sealed their reputation.
Even in defeat, you were guaranteed that Munster players would leave their heart and soul on the pitch. “Irish by birth, Munster by the grace of God,” was the line, but the way some players were transformed in the red jersey, you began to believe it.
As Munster sweated in pursuit of European glory, Leinster perspired. They really should have won the competition a couple of years ago, but stumbled and fell at the semi-final hurdle. There were doubts over their self-belief, their supporters were ambivalent, lacking the passion of Munster’s hordes.
Then something happened, not unlike Munster’s rite of passage in Bordeaux six years ago. Leinster traveled to Toulouse earlier this month on a wing and a prayer, and more in hope than expectation, and lo and behold, they won. No lucky breaks, no dubious refereeing decision, just outstanding rugby. And there were thousands of supporters in blue jerseys there to witness an extraordinary result.
It’s not that long since about 2,000 people would turn up for a game between Munster and Leinster. In advance of this Sunday’s game at Lansdowne Road, all 48,000 tickets are long gone, and if Croke Park had been the venue, it would have been an 85,000 sell-out.
Munster have already arrived, but this won’t just be Leinster’s coming of age. It’s the coming of age of professional rugby in Ireland.