By Ed Leahy
Another year, another major. It’s becoming the norm for Irish golf.
Padraig Harrington ended a 60-year barren spell when he landed the 2007 Open at Carnoustie - Irish golfers have since secured seven major wins in six years.
Harrington’s three wins occurred in 2007 and 2008 and it has been the northern contingent who have kept the, ahem, flag flying in recent years as Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and, of course, Rory McIlroy added four more major victories.
And while this trend is likely to continue, thanks primarily to the McIlroy factor, the past 12 months could have brought more than one major to these shores, in a year when Irish players, once again, proved prominent on both the European and US PGA Tours.
Rory McIlroy - A League of His Own
While 2011 confirmed Rory McIlroy’s place at the top table of world golf, the last twelve months have seen the Holywood man move into a league of his own.
The year started in familiar territory with a second-place finish in Abu Dhabi and fifth in Dubai during the Desert Swing, before losing the Accenture Match Play Championship final to Hunter Mahan in February.
The world number one ranking followed shortly after with victory at the Honda Classic in Florida in March. However, it was only a short stint atop the rankings as McIlroy’s much publicised “slump” followed, resulting in a mixed Masters performance in April and several missed cuts throughout the early summer months.
This perceived lack of form did, however, include a runner-up finish at Quail Hollow (venue of his maiden PGA Tour victory in 2010), which saw McIlroy regain the top spot in the world rankings.
McIlroy did address the situation throughout the summer and acknowledged that his dip in form may have been caused by off-course distractions.
And while it is extremely understandable for a 23-year-old sporting superstar to get slightly distracted from his profession, it must have hurt McIlroy’s pride to fail to be in contention on major Sundays as he missed the cut at the US Open, where he was defending his title, while the most memorable impact he left at The Open was on the unfortunate spectators in the firing line of some wayward drives.
But on the grander scheme of things, those few months will be seen as a very minor blip in what will surely be one of the all-time great golfing careers.
And so it proved, as a return to form included a fifth-place finish at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational in August just in time for ‘Glory’s Last Shot’ at Kiawah Island.
Sure enough, McIlroy romped to victory at the PGA Championship, again winning a major tournament by eight shots, adding his second such achievement and returning to world number one.
Two more PGA Tour victories followed in the season-ending FedEx Cup play-offs, where McIlroy secured the PGA money list, before playing a winning role in Europe’s Ryder Cup victory in September.
All that was left for McIlroy to complete throughout the latter stages of the year was to wrap up the Race to Dubai and collect virtually every available accolade in the end-of-year honours, which he did on both sides of the Atlantic.
For any other golfer, a year like 2012 would surely be a career-defining season, but for McIlroy, expect it to be equalled and eclipsed in the not-so-distant future.
Return of the G-Mac
The US Open champion from 2010 enjoyed a fine return to form in 2012.
McDowell’s 2011 was never going to live up to his spectacular 2010 when the Portrush man landed his first major and proved the European hero at Celtic Manor, when he secured the Ryder Cup for Colin Montgomerie’s team.
And 2012 Ryder Cup qualification must have been high on McDowell’s list of priorities at the turn of the year, ahead of the Medinah event.
McDowell hit his stride early in the year with a runner-up finish at Bay Hill in March, losing out to Tiger Woods, ahead of reaching the final of the Volvo World Match Play final, where he was defeated by the big-hitting Nicolas Colsaerts.
That performance, combined with his 2010 heroics at Celtic Manor would surely have secured a Ryder Cup captain’s pick for McDowell, but his summer form, particularly at the majors, ensured that automatic qualification would be assured.
McDowell found himself in the final group on Sunday at both the US Open in June and the following month at The Open.
A birdie on the final hole in San Francisco would have seen McDowell reach a play-off with eventual winner Webb Simpson, but a twenty-foot putt stayed out and a share of second place was the result.
And the Orlando native had to settle for a fifth-place finish following a disappointing final round at Royal Lytham & St Annes, where McDowell got to witness, first hand, playing partner Adam Scott’s back-nine collapse as Ernie Els snatched the Claret Jug from the likeable Aussie.
But sure enough, McDowell again helped the Europeans to victory at the Ryder Cup, even if his individual impact was much more low key than in 2010, and a tournament victory would eventually arrive before year’s end at the World Golf Challenge in California.
Best of the Rest - Harrington & Lowry Impress
Ryder Cup veteran Padraig Harrington was in no doubt that he would have to qualify for this year’s tournament on his own merits.
The three-time major winner was told that he would not be getting a wild card from Jose Maria Olazabal and the Dubliner eventually came up short in his quest to make the top ten automatic picks.
But 2012 will surely be seen as a positive year for Harrington who showed some excellent form throughout, most notably in the Masters and the US Open where top ten finishes were achieved.
In fact, Harrington was also just an 18th-hole birdie away from a play-off at the US Open but had to settle for a share of fourth place after his gung-ho approach to the 18th hole backfired and he finished with a bogey.
Harrington showed decent form throughout the year, posting a career best 61 at the US PGA Transitions Championship in March, while the Stackstown man looked set to land his second Irish Open title at the half-way stage at Royal Portrush but had to settle for a seventh place finish.
But the year ended with a first victory in two years for Harrington after a late call up to the prestigious PGA Grand Slam of Golf in Bermuda so expect a big 2013 for the Dubliner.
Shane Lowry is another Irish golfer working his way towards world prominence in the game following a great finish to the year, which included victory in the Algarve at the Portugal Masters as he became only the second player to win on the European Tour as both an amateur and a professional.
The Offaly man followed that up with an excellent performance at the WGC in China ahead of the season-ending Dubai event.
Illness, however, ruled Lowry out of the event and as a result, the Carton House based golfer finished the year just outside the world top fifty.
Michael Hoey looks set to continue the trend of northern successes as the Ballymoney man enjoyed European Tour victory in Morocco in March, while Damien McGrane finished second at the same event in what has been a quiet year for the Meath man.
It was also an average year for Peter Lawrie, but a strong end to the season saw the Dubliner make it into the top 60 to qualify for a place in the season-ending Race To Dubai event.
Young & Old Shine in 2012
The Irish amateur circuit remains in rude health as Portrush’s Alan Dunbar enjoyed victory at the British Amateur Golf Championship, while Stephanie Meadow, also from Portrush, landed the ladies equivalent in June.
The Curtis Cup, which is the ladies amateur Ryder Cup-type event, was also secured by the GB & Ireland team, with Meadows and Leona Maguire both involved.
Elsewhere, teenager Gavin Moynihan claimed the Irish Amateur Open title at Royal Dublin.
The European Ladies Tour returned for another successful event at the spectacular Killeen Castle with Scotland’s Catriona Matthew securing victory. Unfortunately, none of the Irish contingent managed to make the cut at the Meath venue.
Des Smyth enjoyed another successful year on the senior circuit taking victory at the Travis Perkins plc Senior Masters at Woburn Golf Club in September.
A ninth-place finish in the Senior Order of Merit was Smyth’s reward in a year when Miguel Angel Jimenez surpassed the Baltray golfer as the oldest winner on the European Tour.
The Portrush Open
One of the biggest successes for Irish golf in 2012 was the memorable and sold out Irish Open, played north of the border for the first time in fifty years.
The event attracted a decent field while huge numbers attended the event, which was played out at the spectacular Royal Portrush golf course on the ultra-scenic north Antrim coast.
Unfortunately, the event was unable to produce an Irish winner, but it was great to see the tournament regain its place as one of the top events on the European Tour.
The players couldn’t speak highly enough of the Irish golf supporters and hospitality shown throughout the week at Portrush.
So over to you Carton House. We’ll see you in June.