Major champions Clarke and McIlroy head field at rejuvenated Irish Open

rory mcilroy, darren clarke
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Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke brought the spoils of their recent victories to the Irish Open.
By
Associated Press
KILLARNEY, Ireland

Series: European Tour

Published: Wednesday, July 27, 2011 | 1:30 p.m.

After establishing Ireland as the current focal point of world golf, newly crowned British Open winner Darren Clarke, U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy and two other local major winners have descended on Killarney for the rejuvenated Irish Open.

Clarke’s three-shot victory at Royal St. George’s sealed Northern Ireland’s third major in 13 months after Graeme McDowell and McIlroy’s triumphs in successive U.S. Opens. That followed three wins in Grand Slam events between 2007-08 for Padraig Harrington of Ireland.

With Irish golf riding the crest of a wave, Clarke is aiming to become only the third player to hold both British and Irish Open titles, after Nick Faldo of England and Harrington, who is also competing this week.

“It would be a hell of an achievement -- a dream come true -- to have the Open and Irish Open trophies on display back home,” Clarke said. “I’ve been close on a number of occasions and never quite got the job done -- a bit like the Open you could say.”

The 42-year-old Clarke’s first appearence on the European Tour came at the Irish Open as an amateur in 1990. He finished 50th, 18 shots behind winner Jose Maria Olazabal.

Following his victory two weeks ago, the Northern Irishman’s exuberent celebrations have been the subject of much attention. Clarke, though, defended his behavior, suggesting it shouldn’t have become an issue.

“I won a golf tournament and people are concerned about whether or not I had one pint too many. I mean, get a life -- it’s sport.” Clarke said Wednesday. “It was radio shows and phone-ins and that sort of stuff -- debates. People are entitled to their opinion, but there are bigger and more important things than me winning a tournament.”

The favorite this week at Killarney Golf and Fishing Club is McIlroy who, alongside Clarke, was on Wednesday made an honorary life member of the European Tour for their achievements in this year’s majors.

Despite his success this season, McIlroy said it would still be special to win the Irish Open.

“To win your national Open is a huge goal of anyone’s.” McIlroy said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited about an Irish Open.”

“I think with Darren doing what he did a couple of weeks ago, and myself winning in the U.S., I think there’s a tremendous atmosphere and a great buzz about the tournament.”

After this week’s event, McIlroy will return to his preferred climate and conditions in America, to compete in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational followed by the PGA Championship.

With the two Northern Irishmen leading the challengers, along with the presence of McDowell and Harrington, organizers are expecting record crowds of around 100,000 for the tournament, which starts on Thursday.

Despite the anticipation, the event has overcome several obstacles in order to go ahead.

The official sponsors pulled out in favor of backing the Irish football team, meaning the prize fund was reduced by 50 percent. Before the successes of McIlroy and Clarke, ticket sales were slow, not helped by the difficulties facing the Irish economy.

Aside from the pretournament favorites, Irish hopes will be on former Ryder Cup vice-captain Paul McGinley and 2009 champion Shane Lowry. Lowry overcame Robert Rock of England in a playoff for the victory as an amateur.

Another Englishman, Ross Fisher, will be looking to his defend title, having won the tournament last year by two shots over Harrington.

“Last year, it was just a great week,” Fisher said.

He was helped on his way to victory by a second-round course record 10-under-par 61.