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Irish Presence Felt at Celtic Manor

It was one of those precious moments in team golf.  Rory McIlroy stood downcast on the 18th fairway at Celtic Manor Saturday, having dumped a heavily hit 3-wood second shot into the water fronting the green. Suddenly there was a comforting arm over his shoulder and Graeme McDowell was saying: “I’ve got you covered. It’s all right.”

                When the priceless half-point was secured against Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar, we felt this could be a defining moment in McIlroy’s eagerly anticipated impact on the Ryder Cup. After all, it was his 30-foot birdie putt on the short 17th which had given the Irish pair the chance of victory.

                His hugely animated response to that effort had us thinking he would go on from there to become the new Sergio Garcia and torment the Americans to distraction with his youthful exuberance. But it didn’t happen. He didn’t match the outrageous debut of the irrepressible Spaniard as a 19-year-old at Brookline in 1999, when he won three-and-a-half points out of four as an unlikely partner for Jesper Parnevik.

                For 21-year-old McIlroy, there was the glorious chance later Saturday of progressing along the same path against the same morning opponents. But prodigious skills failed him, ironically on the same short 17th where he missed from six feet to match Cink’s birdie. And worse was to follow on the 18th where a poorly executed wedge finished in a greenside bunker.

                The other Ryder Cup debutant among eight Irishmen with team roles at Celtic Manor was Colin Byrne, caddie to Edoardo Molinari, whom he joined only in early August. So, it was that after experiencing the President’s Cup as caddie to New Zealander Greg Turner and then twice with South Africa’s Retief Goosen, Byrne got his Ryder Cup chance with a wild-card selection.

                His reaction? “The thing seemed bigger than Christmas,” said the Dubliner, a Tour caddie for 15 years. And he had the company of fellow Irish caddies JP Fitzgerald (with McIlroy) and Ronan Flood (with Padraig Harrington). Then there were Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley as key members of Monty’s back-room team.

                I have to admit that Ireland’s eight-man presence provoked a warm glow within me, notwithstanding the cruelly hostile weather over the weekend. For it brought to mind rugby seasons of the 1970s and ’80s and the countless springtime Saturdays in Dublin where the pride of Ireland was biennially humbled by red Welsh invaders. Those were the years of the peerless Gareth Edwards, the Welsh scrum-half who, interestingly, is now captain of Celtic Manor.

                Indeed, a fair sprinkling of those invaders came from the rugby stronghold of South Wales, where golf fans flocked in the thousands over the weekend. Nor do I forget the Ryder Cup staging at The K Club in 2006 when the hopes of an Irish captain on home soil were dashed by the choice of a Welshman, Ian Woosnam, to lead the European side.

                But with eight at Celtic Manor, the Irish can afford to bury old enmities and offer the hand of friendship to their Celtic neighbours. And the feeling seems to be mutual, judging by the reflection of Sir Terry Matthews on how he succeeded in landing the Ryder Cup. “Ireland helped us considerably,” he said, “if for no other reason than you broke new ground in the way agreements were reached with the European Tour and the host venue.”

                The weather also brought texted sympathy at the weekend from Gerry Byrne, the course superintendent at The K Club, to his Celtic Manor counterpart, Jim McKenzie. “My heart goes out to him because I know what he’s going through,” said Byrne. “Having had an inch-and-a-half of torrential rain from 7 a.m. until midday, we were within little more than 15 minutes of closing the course on Sunday in 2006.”

                Byrne believes that having the Welsh staging a week later than The K Club created a significant problem in itself. “Quite apart from the greater danger of bad weather, your greenkeeping staff have less daylight in which to repair any damage which may occur,” he said. “You’re looking at a maximum of about 12 hours of daylight, from seven till seven.”

                Meanwhile, the Irish players battled on and we had the heartening spectacle of Harrington finding some form in the company of Ross Fisher, the player who beat him for the 3Irish Open title only two months ago. “There was a lot of pressure on Paddy, carrying me around,” was the generous reaction of the English rookie, given that it was the quality of Fisher’s play which seemed to lift the three-time major winner.

                Finally, the fragmented nature of play did little to dampen vice-captain Clarke’s enthusiasm for the tournament. Though touted as a likely captain for the Gleneagles staging in 2014, he prefers to look to the future as a player. “While it’s great to be part of it all, I find it hard not to be out there hitting the shots,” he said Sunday. “Which has made me all the more determined to be playing at Medinah (near Chicago) in two years’ time.”


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