By Emmett Fitzpatrick
The eyes of the golfing world will turn to Wisconsin this month for the 43rd Ryder Cup Matches, set to take place September 24-26 at famed Whistling Straits in Sheboygan, and fans of Irish golf will have much to watch for as the top golfers from Europe take on their American counterparts. For one, legendary Irish golfer Padraig Harrington will be captaining the European team, and Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy will be one of the top players for Harrington’s squad. Even the golf course – situated on the shores of Lake Michigan - draws inspiration from Ireland, as it is modeled after traditional links courses of the British Isles.
This year’s tournament, postponed from last year due to the pandemic, will return to the Midwest for the first time since 2012, when the Europeans staged an unforgettable comeback win at Medinah Country Club in the northwest suburbs. A full fan experience is expected, which will no doubt lead to a rollicking atmosphere at an event long known for its boisterous patrons and tense matches.
Harrington, who was featured in a cover story for this paper when Ireland hosted the Ryder Cup at the K Club in 2006, will look to complement an impressive list of achievements in his playing career - which includes wins in back-to-back Open Championships as well as a PGA Championship – with a successful performance in the role of captain. Irish Ambassador to the U.S. Dan Mulhall called Harrington “Ireland’s greatest individual sportsman” during a virtual conversation on his career and the Ryder Cup earlier this year, and defeating the Americans on their home soil would only add to the Dublin native’s legacy.
McIlroy may be the most famous golfer on the planet not named Tiger Woods, and he is no stranger to Ryder Cup glory, having already competed in five matches and been on the winning side in four of them. Hailing from Holywood in Northern Ireland, McIlroy chose to represent the Republic of Ireland in this summer’s Olympic Games, where he nearly captured a bronze medal. While his game has not been quite as dominant as it was when he captured four major championships before turning 25, he and Spaniard Jon Rahm will be the top players on the European squad. McIlroy will again be teaming up with fellow Irishman Shane Lowry, who also competed for Ireland in the Olympics and memorably captured the 2019 Open Championship, where he celebrated in fine style in Dublin and in his hometown of Clara in County Offaly.
Viewers watching the matches on television could be forgiven if, at first glance, they believe they are watching a tournament in Ireland or Scotland, rather than eastern Wisconsin. After all, Whistling Straits is located directly on the shores of Lake Michigan, and that is by design. While the Straits Course does not boast the long history of those traditional courses in the British Isles – it opened in 1998 – it was designed as a replica of the famous links courses that dot Ireland’s coastline. Whistling Straits also boasts another course on the premises – aptly titled the Irish Course – that pays homage to the rugged, windswept style of golf made famous across the pond.
When we polled an informal survey of local golf fans in the Irish community on their rooting preferences for the matches, the results broke down along national lines, which is not surprising given the competitive nature of the event. European fans will no doubt be outnumbered at Whistling Straits, as the Americans will have a decided home course advantage, a fact that is not lost on Harrington. During his conversation with Ambassador Mulhall, Harrington asked each European fan to cheer as hard as three Americans to attempt to make up for this difference.
Time will tell if the Irish influence on the Ryder Cup – from its leaders to its players and its golf course – will sway the result of the matches, but the event promises to be quite a spectacle to watch.
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By Emmett Fitzpatrick