Fighting Irish Three players from the Emerald Isle, the largest such contingent in more than two decades, hope to bring a bit o' luck and a lot of pluck to Europe's Ryder Cup team

September 02, 2001

It has been 15 years since Paul McGinley played Gaelic football
for his hometown team in Dublin, but McGinley, 34, still speaks
reverentially about the way the sport is governed. According to
Gaelic Athletic Association rules, a player may compete only for
the county in which he was born, even if he has moved elsewhere.
"It's a very parochial system," McGinley says. "If you're from
my town or village, we'd have a very strong bond because no
matter what, we'd always play on the same team."

A pro golfer since 1991, McGinley has become one of the top
players in Europe and is ranked 45th in the world, but he has
never had the opportunity to reprise that home-team feeling. He's
likely to finally get the chance Sept. 28-30 at the Ryder Cup.
Two other Irishmen, Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington, are
first and third, respectively, in the European standings and have
already made the team that will take on the U.S. at the Belfry in
Sutton Coldfield, England. If McGinley, No. 8, can remain among
the top 10 through this week's BMW International Open in Munich,
the final qualifying event, he will join them as a rookie on the
first team since 1975 to field three Irish golfers. "The three of
us have helped each other, and no doubt we've pushed each other,"
says Harrington. "We've also become great friends."

A late bloomer, McGinley refers to his compatriots as "the two
boys," and he is indeed the oldest of the trio (Clarke is 33,
Harrington 30), all of whom played in last week's NEC
Invitational at Firestone Country Club in Akron. Growing up,
McGinley played golf only in the summer, devoting the rest of the
year to Gaelic football, an amateur sport that combines aspects
of rugby and soccer. "The big guys would look to catch the ball,
and I'd pick up the scraps," says the 5'7", 160-pound McGinley,
who was good enough to make the highest-level team in Dublin
before a shattered left kneecap ended his football career when he
was 19. Devastated, he enrolled in a marketing program at
Dublin's Trinity College and prepared for a life in business.

After graduating in 1989, McGinley took an internship at the
European Economic Community in Brussels, where he befriended a
California man who put him in touch with Gordon Severson, the
golf coach at U.S. International in San Diego. McGinley was a
scratch player by then, and Severson invited him to walk on.
McGinley accepted and, after taking a 5,000[pound] loan, flew to
San Diego that summer.

Save for his six-month hitch in Brussels, San Diego was
McGinley's first foray outside of Ireland. Think Frank McCourt in
spikes. "When he came off the plane, he was wearing a green
blazer with an Irish logo on it," says Severson. "I didn't know
he was such a little fellow." McGinley's teammates delighted in
his naivete. When, on his first road trip, McGinley asked them
how to eat pancakes, they told him to roll up the pancakes and
eat them like a burrito. McGinley wound up with a lap full of
syrup.

His game was a mess, too. McGinley was short--"He couldn't hit it
out of his shadow," Severson says--and worked the ball too much, a
habit formed on his home course in Ireland, which was full of
sharp doglegs. McGinley improved dramatically, winning several
college tournaments and making Europe's Walker Cup team in '91.
He earned his European tour card that fall but over the next four
seasons had only six top 10 finishes. "I was lucky to turn pro at
such a late age [24] because I could handle the ups and downs,"
he says. "If I were younger, I might have fallen off the tour
straight away."

McGinley's breakout year came in 1996, when he won for the first
time, in Austria, and finished 15th on the money list. Over the
last two years he has become a weight-room junkie. McGinley
proudly notes that his three best performances of 2001--a victory
early last month at the Wales Open, a tie for third at the
Scottish Open and a 22nd at the recent PGA Championship--were all
on long courses. He was 26th at Firestone. "I'm just getting to
know my game," he says. "I've improved a lot, but by no means am
I the finished article."

Harrington, who also grew up in Dublin, is a work in progress,
too, though he has enjoyed a much steeper ascent in the golf
firmament. When Harrington was 18, he figured his best avenue
into pro golf was as a financial manager, so he began studying
toward an accounting degree at Dublin Business School. However,
as a golfer he soon defied his own expectations and at 19 was
named to the Walker Cup team, the first of three he has played
on. In 1995, at 24, Harrington won the Irish Close
Championship--the Gaelic equivalent of the U.S. Amateur--and
turned pro. He could have made that move earlier but decided to
take his time after watching McGinley. "I felt that Paul's
maturity helped him make a smooth transition to the pro game,"
Harrington says. "It's a lot easier to do that at 24 than at 20."

Now in his sixth year on the European tour, Harrington has been
consistent but plagued by a Mickelsonian tendency to fritter
away opportunities to win. Harrington, 17th in the NEC, has 14
seconds and only three victories over his career. After taking a
five-stroke lead through three rounds of last year's Benson and
Hedges International Open at the Belfry, he was famously
disqualified when officials discovered that he had forgotten to
sign his first-round scorecard. Still, Harrington has finished
in the top 10 in earnings three times and was the revelation of
the European team at the '99 Ryder Cup, where his 1-1-1 record
included a one-up victory over Mark O'Meara, one of only three
wins for the Euros on Black Sunday.

Despite his success and lofty position (15th) in the World
Ranking, Harrington has undertaken a massive retooling of his
swing over the last three years under the tutelage of Bob
Torrance, whose son, Sam, is the European Ryder Cup captain. "Tee
to green, I'm easily as good as I've ever been," Harrington says.
"Unfortunately, because I've spent so much time on my swing, my
short game has suffered."

No one will accuse Clarke, who came in third at Firestone, three
shots out of the Jim Furyk-Tiger Woods playoff, of spending too
much time practicing. Unlike Harrington and McGinley, Clarke, who
is from Dungannon, a town of 15,000 in Northern Ireland, has been
earmarked for stardom since he was a lad of 13 carrying a three
handicap. The 6'3" Clarke weighed more than 260 pounds last year
and conceded that his long-range prospects--Clarke is eighth in
the World Ranking--were hindered by his swollen paunch. He has
since shed 30 pounds by adhering to an all-protein,
no-carbohydrate diet. "Losing the weight makes a big difference,
but not being able to drink beer is a killer," says Clarke. Asked
when he last enjoyed a pint, Clarke laughs and says, "Well, I've
been cheating a bit."

Four years ago Clarke, who has a 3-4-0 record in two Ryder Cups
(1997 and '99), bought a house in the London suburb of
Sunningdale. Though Clarke didn't know it, McGinley had also
purchased a house there, and by coincidence their backyards abut.
The two of them split the cost of a full-scale weight room in
McGinley's garage, but they spend more time socializing with each
other on tour than they do working out at home. "Darren likes to
do everything at a hundred miles an hour, and I'm not like that,"
McGinley says. "We both feel it's important to get away from golf
when we're home."

Even though they live primarily in England, Clarke and McGinley
will no doubt feel a parochial bond with Harrington, who still
lives in Dublin, when the three of them convene at the Belfry.
"To have three players on the Ryder Cup team is massive for us,"
says Clarke, who named his son Tyrone after the county in which
he was raised. "We're a small country, you know, only about four
million people." That's eight million eyes smiling all over
Ireland, a place where no one ever forgets where they came from.

THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG Eire men Harrington (above) was slow to become a pro, as was McGinley (near left), who shares a weight room with neighbor Clarke. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG Even after his playoff win Woods was preaching patience.

"I'm just getting to know my game," says McGinley. "I've
improved a lot, but by no means am I the finished article."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)