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Ireland's major success defies explanation, but it's no fluke

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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SANDWICH, England -- There's no rational explanation, really.

But irrational ones abound.

Moving well past the point of geographic quirk and topical oddity, the Emerald Isle has accounted for five major championships since this very month in 2007, including back-to-back U.S. Open titles.

"It's a Mecca," David Feherty said, smirking.

Feherty is famous for his one-liners, but he was only half-joking.

He was born and raised in Northern Ireland, same as Rory McIlroy, the reigning U.S. Open champion and the comprehensive favorite this week at the British Open, the oldest major of them all. Any notion of Irish dominance, though, is still in swaddling clothes.

Graeme McDowell's triumph at the 2010 U.S. Open was one of five major victories by Irishmen in the past 16 Grand Slams. (Getty Images)  
Graeme McDowell's triumph at the 2010 U.S. Open was one of five major victories by Irishmen in the past 16 Grand Slams. (Getty Images)  
Before we can track the incredible trajectory of players from the Republic of Ireland and its northern neighbor, you have to know where they've been. Or, rather, haven't. For multiple generations, winning one of the four Grand Slam titles has been as elusive as finding a four-leaf clover.

Fred Daly, a Northern Irishman, won the British Open in 1947, and wasn't joined in the major championship winner's circle until 2007, when Ireland's Padraig Harrington won the first of three Slam titles.

It's as though Harrington unraveled some dormant genetic code. With Ulstermen Graeme McDowell and McIlroy having won consecutive U.S. Open titles -- ending a 40-year drought by Europeans in that event -- the Irish contingent has combined to claim five of the past 16 majors.

That's the same total over that span as the next-best nation, the United States. For perspective, the combined population of the two Irish countries is 6.3 million, or roughly the population of Tennessee. Northern Ireland has 1.8 million residents, equal to the population of West Virginia.

It's akin to group hysteria, in the best possible way.

"When you see the quality of the guys you play with week in week out, you feed off each other a bit," McDowell said Tuesday. "We all start to believe that we all can do it when one of us wins. It's not like when Tiger was winning 65 percent of the majors.

"When Harrington won three of five [actually six] it became more of a realistic possibility for all of us."

Forgive him for the math error. The numbers have tended to blur. Nary a big event goes by these days without an Irishman being in the mix at some point. In a short span of five seasons, as far as majors go, Ireland has become an island unto itself. Counting off the successes is the easy part, of course. Divining reasons for the breakthrough is quite another.

Just like when you are lost, it's best to ask a local for directions. Preferably one with a sense of humor and off-center point of view.

"I think you have to think about Ireland in general, the whole island," said Feherty, a former Ryder Cupper and now a television analyst. "It's the first place the rain hits when it comes across 3,000 miles of ocean and people spend a lot of time indoors more than pretty much any other place in Europe. Because when there's foul weather elsewhere, there's snow and fun stuff to do. There's not much to do in the mud, except drink. And read."

Indeed, the island has produced poets like Yeats and Shaw, and authors such as Joyce, Wilde and Swift. Creativity is certainly not lacking.

"The pubs over there, it's not the same atmosphere as here where everyone is looking at ESPN and whatever is on," Feherty said. "Conversation is still alive. It's still a tremendous place to develop an imagination, which is probably why we have so many writers, poets, musicians and artists in general. When you think about it in those terms, maybe it transfers over to sports in those that require a lot of time in between shots or whatever. We have had some great snooker players.

"Golf is one of those things where you have to think about what is going to happen and feel it in your head and imagine what it's going to feel like. You can see Rory McIlroy, that's what he is doing, visualizing the shot and he has a keen sense of how he wants it to feel and he goes ahead and swings and lets the ball get in the way."

Nobody better stand in his way at the moment. McIlroy is ranked No. 4 in the world at age 22 and has held the lead at some point in each of the past four majors. The Irish have plenty of time to visualize things in the abstract, since Feherty said the weather's tolerable for perhaps half the year.

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"But they still play," he said, "out there in the mud."

The second ascendance theory is every bit as subjective and hard to quantify. Ireland has always had good players -- but perhaps burdened with a slight inferiority complex. Yet when a player you have personally beaten many times over the years wins a big event, it's natural to ask, "Why not me?"

The upward Irish flight path can be traced to 2005, when Michael Campbell won the U.S. Open. The affable New Zealander was something of a journeyman, and a longtime friend of Harrington's since they had toured in Europe for years with moderate success. Then Campbell held off Tiger Woods to win at Pinehurst.

"Certainly Michael Campbell, when he won, I played a lot of golf with him and it definitely made it easier for me to believe I could be a major winner, knowing his game," Harrington explained in 2009. "I'm sure over time, I'll play a lot more competitively with Rory and it's good to have a marker of what it takes to win a major, and that's what I am for those guys, a marker."

More like equal parts trailblazer and bulldozer. They have aligned behind him like he was their Pied Piper, on down through the lineage. Not only have the Irish been regularly in contention at majors, they have enjoyed a renaissance on the European Tour. Earlier this year, veterans Darren Clarke and Michael Hoey, a pair of Northern Irishmen, won in consecutive weeks.

It has become a contagion.

Even the South Africans have gulped from the same cup of confidence, if not confluence. When Louis Oosthuizen won the British Open last year, best pal Charl Schwartzel looked in the mirror and saw no reason why the skinny lad staring back at him couldn't do much the same thing. Schwartzel birdied the final four holes at Augusta in April to win the Masters.

McIlroy, who obliterated a dozen scoring records when he won the U.S. Open by eight strokes last month, senses that he might be inspiring a new wave of players to greater heights. Not just Irish lads, per se, but the younger set in general -- players in his proximal peer group, like Matteo Manassero, Rickie Fowler or Ryo Ishikawa.

"Hopefully my success at the U.S. Open can spur a lot of the younger guys on to say, if I can do it, then they can come up and do it, as well," McIlroy said Tuesday.

There's a lot of that sentiment going around. Nobody was saying those words when Woods was at his peak, because he was hammering everybody and had no psychological equal. But in the new, crowded reality atop the rankings, a shot of confidence is like a stiff European cappuccino -- enough to make a difference.

"We gain a lot of belief," McDowell said, "from watching our friends and colleagues winning one."

Or, especially, countrymen.

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