Irish Voice sports columnist CATHAL DERVAN loves a game of golf in Northern Ireland, and says that you’ll be equally enthralled once you play a round in the land of new U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy.
They're well used to walking in the footprints of giants in Northern Ireland – now you can golf in their shadows as well and play the courses that inspired U.S. Open winners Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell.
The land that gave us the wonder of the world that is the Giant’s Causeway now offers mere mortals the opportunity to follow in some very famous golfing footsteps.
The last two U.S. Opens have belonged to the province of Ulster as red hands lifted one of the most inspirational trophies in world golf not once but twice, first at Pebble Beach and then at Congressional.
McDowell, 2010 champion, and McIlroy, winner in 2011, both hail from the northern shores of the golfing Mecca that is Ireland. Both have stood up for Ulster and taken pride in their achievements.
And they are not the only golfing ambassadors from the province of champions.
Darren Clarke needs no introduction to golf fans as a legend of the European game, while both Gareth Maybin and Michael Hoey have won on the European Tour in recent years and continue to compete at the highest level.
The progress of this famous five has put Ulster golf on the map, nowhere more so than in America where McIlroy has proved there is new life after Tiger Woods, with McDowell riding high in his slipstream.
Already plans are afoot to maximise the current exposure and host a European Tour event in the North, maybe even the Irish or British Opens.
In the meantime, though, those responsible for the small ball game want you to join them and discover for yourself what all the fuss is about.
Value for money is now a priority with the Northern Ireland tourist authorities as they seek to build golf traffic on the back of recent successes. Their clubs have answered the call to arms.
There is literally something for everyone in the wee North, from the high handicapper looking for a social but pleasant getaway to the scratch golfer in search of a real test.
But don’t take my word for it. Listen to what the pros who have put Ulster golf on the map have to say about their national product.
McIlroy was greeted by thousands of admiring fans amidst the family and friends who welcomed him home to Holywood Golf Club just outside Belfast last week with the U.S. Open trophy in tow.
As he addressed the world’s media in the very dining room where he used to hit plastic golf balls as a three-year-old while his dad Gerry worked behind the bar, McIlroy spoke of his sense of belonging to golf of the Ulster and Irish variety.
“I know this is the room where I used to hit the plastic golf balls with the plastic club at a very young age, but to be honest I don’t remember it,” laughed McIlroy at his homecoming.
“They tell me that I bounced the ball off the ladies working here, off the bar, off the walls. I wasn’t very accurate by all accounts but I’ve been coming to this club for as long as I can remember and I will keep coming here for as long as I can.
“It’s where I belong. My grandfather Jimmy played here off five, so did my dad and my uncle Colm. We all grew up here. It’s our club.
“I don’t remember the plastic balls, but I do remember how proud I was when I first managed to drive past the ladies tee on the 13th hole, the one they call the Valley. I was four or five at the time, playing with my dad and my uncle, and I was so happy to do that.”
Committed to the Irish Open in Killarney, Co. Kerry at the end of July, McIlroy would love to see the British version hosted in Ulster again after it’s one and only visit to Portrush in 1951.
“It is feasible to host the Open here again,” said McIlroy. “The courses are there and the next available Open won’t be until something like 2017 so there is time to get the infrastructure right. I would back the idea, and hopefully I can help it happen.”
McIlroy also hopes to encourage visitors to his native land from near and far.
“People know how proud I am to be from Northern Ireland, and I would encourage golfers here to come and see for themselves what I am on about,” he added.
“I would be very happy if the fact that I won the U.S. Open and a first major helps to attract golfers and tourists to Ulster. They won’t be disappointed with the welcome or the golf when they get here.”
McIlroy knows what he is talking about by the way. Destined to be world number one in the not too distant future, he doesn’t just like the Nick Faldo designed Lough Erne in fantastic Fermanagh. He also has a holiday home there and carries the club’s name on the collar of his shirt.
“Lough Erne is a home from home for me. It’s my second home and a great golf course that is as challenging and enjoyable for the amateur as it is for the pro,” said McIlroy, who’s not the only world class golfer with a home in his native land. McIlroy’s close friend and Dungannon native Clarke likes the seaside town of Portrush so much that he recently moved his family to live beside one of the world’s great links courses.
“Royal Portrush has got everything. Links is the purest form of golf and this is the best links course in the world,” said Clarke, who has recently moved back to a huge house that overlooks the course and the stunning Antrim coastline.
“It presents so many difficult challenges. The new tees that have been put in as well make the course much more of a modern-day challenge. We have an amazing product, not just here but throughout Northern Ireland.”
McDowell’s first port of call when he returns home from his many triumphs abroad is always the Rathmore clubhouse at Royal Portrush.
“I admit, when I used to stand out there on the greens of Rathmore, I dared to dream about a day like Sunday at the U.S. Open last year,” admitted McDowell.
“It was such a special day, and having my dad there was fantastic. My upbringing at Portrush stood me in good stead at Pebble Beach. It is a course very similar to here with rough ground and a sea breeze, although it is a bit rougher here.”
McDowell has never forgotten where he came from. The clubhouse in Rathmore features the Ryder Cup shirt McDowell won when he helped Europe beat America in 2008.
His message says it all. “Rathmore, always my home, thanks for all the support.”