Tuesday, May 28, 2024

How the ‘West of Ireland’ made Irish golf, and Rory McIlroy, a global golfing powerhouse

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No fewer than 26 winners of the “West” came together in the clubhouse at Rosses Point last Thursday evening for a special centenary celebration of an event first played in 1923.

While Lowry and McIlroy and the Holywood star’s caddie Harry Diamond – the 2012 West of Ireland winner – were in Louisiana, their global success underlined the importance of Irish amateur golf’s major championships to our success on the world stage.

Des Smyth (1973 winner) pictured with former West of Ireland champions Declan Branigan (1976, ‘81), Roddy Carr (1971) and Barry Reddan (1978) last year.

From 1963 and 1965 champion Michael Craigan (aged 91) and 1972 winner Vincent Nevin (90) to this year’s champion Keith Egan, right down through the years to four-time winner Garth McGimpsey, Arthur Pierse and the County Louth and Laytown and Bettystown stalwarts Mark Gannon, Barry Reddan, Declan Branigan and Des Smyth, the “West”’ was heralded as much for fostering lifelong friendships as for its innate ability to give our up and coming stars the belief that they could make it in the game.

In remembering the immense contributions of West of Ireland legends Cecil Ewing, John Burke and Joe Carr to Irish golf as they paved the way for the likes of Pádraig Harrington (1994), McIlroy (2005-6) and Lowry (2008) as well as fellow major champions Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell, 1973 winner Smyth paid special tribute to McIlroy for becoming a true superstar of the modern game and an inspiration to the new generation.

“As a professional golfer, and I’ve seen a lot of players come and go, Ireland has done remarkably well for a small country,” said guest speaker Smyth (71) in a heartfelt 20-minute address.

“Places like here and all the other courses, north, south, east and west, they made these players into what they became later on. And I think there’s a lot of kudos to be taken from that.

“But I think I have to make a special mention of Rory because I was on tour for quite a long time. And there weren’t many major winners. Padraig broke the ice on that one and the other players followed.

“But Rory has become a superstar and people forget just how good this young man is. He has been nine times number one in the world, and still, people don’t seem to be happy with his performances, which baffles me.

“He’s won practically every tournament that matters in the world of golf. The only one missing, of course, is the Masters. But he is a very special player.”

Ken Kearney and Garth McGimpsey at Rosses Point last week

Smyth recalled how he got to know McIlroy when he was a vice-captain for Paul McGinley in the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles.

“I was fortunate enough to be sent out in the practice rounds with Rory,” he said. “So I spent quite a bit of time with him that week. And I’ve never seen anything like it.”

What stood out for Smyth was not just McIlroy’s ability – the same skills that saw him win the West at 15 and 16 years of age in 2005 and 2006 – but his sincerity and friendliness, qualities that are often overlooked.

“As you probably all remember, when Jamie Donaldson hit it in like this (indicates a few feet with his fingers), and they won the Ryder Cup on the 15th green, there was bedlam,” Smyth recalled.

“And just to show you what type of guy he is, I’m standing 100 yards back up the fairway. And we purposely had white jackets and blue stuff on so the players could identify the vice captains and the guys in the back room, and if they wanted anything or weren’t happy with something, they could find us in the crowd very easily. Plus, we were inside the ropes, of course.

“But I remember there was a melee, and I was standing talking to a few people, and I said, ‘Gee, it’s fantastic, we won the Ryder Cup’. And all of a sudden, this young man starts running up the fairway and it’s Rory. And I said, jeez, I hope there’s nothing wrong. And he came up, and he gave me a big hug.

“And he said, ‘Des, it was brilliant working with you this week. Thanks for all your help’. And when people talk about Rory McIlroy, that’s the Rory I know.”

Today’s Sport News in 90 Seconds – 29th April

McIlroy and Lowry played with the joy and enthusiasm of their amateur days en route to victory on Sunday, and for Smyth, that shows a love of the game that sums up what “the West” means to Irish golf.

“The most important thing about this game is the friendships you make,” said Smyth, who remains friends with Co Sligo’s famous Flanagan family more than 50 years after first travelling to Rosses Point to see if he had the right stuff to win a major and perhaps become a touring pro.

“They’re lifelong friendships. They’re there forever. And that’s the beauty of our game. We all love it. So I think we can be very thankful that we found this game or it found us.

“And it’s been a great journey. I’ve loved every minute of it. I played tournament golf for 46 years, retired now. Highs and lows. Brilliant.

“It’s a game I’ve loved, and I know everyone in this room feels the same.

“So I just want to say thank you very much (to Co Sligo) from all the players. Our recent winner of West is in front of me. I hope you fulfil all your ambitions, whatever they are. Think of Rory McIlroy. You never know.”

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