Darren Clarke believes that the scenes “could be like nothing we’ve seen before” as The Open Champion and his fellow Northern Irishman and Major Champion Rory McIlroy return to Irish shores this week for the Irish Open presented by Discover Ireland at Killarney Golf and Fishing Club, in County Kerry.
Clarke and US Open Champion McIlroy are expected to receive a rapturous reception from the huge crowds that will descend on the Killeen course at the stunning Kerry venue as they battle it out with a star-studded field for the prestigious title.
They will also be joined by three-time Major Champion Padraig Harrington, who in 2007 became the first home-grown player to win the Irish Open in 25 years when he beat Welshman Bradley Dredge in a nail-biting play-off.
“The Irish Open promises to be extra special this year, with Rory and I bringing back the US Open Trophy and the Claret Jug,” said Clarke.
“We always enjoy an amazing reception from the fans in Ireland, but I’ve got a feeling this could be like nothing we’ve seen before. We are both really looking forward to coming home and celebrating Irish golf’s achievements, and we will both be hoping to win the Irish Open to give the fans yet another reason to celebrate.”
His compatriot McIlroy added: “Darren’s magnificent victory at Royal St George’s means the Irish Open will be even more of a celebration this week.
“The reception I received last month when I brought the US Open Trophy home was unbelievable, and I’m sure it will be even better in Killarney when Darren also has the Claret Jug with him. It’s an amazing time for Irish golf at the moment, and I’m sure the fans will help make the Irish Open a truly special event.”
Harrington, meanwhile, was keen to stress the importance of the event to him, saying: “I’ve always said that the Irish Open is the fifth biggest tournament for me. Obviously you have the four Majors, then for me winning my national Open is a must in your career.
“Luckily, the Irish Open is one of the best events in Europe – and one of the biggest – and is a prestigious tournament in its own right, especially moving back to Killarney. I grew up in the 1980s when it was one of the premier events on Tour, and it is certainly building in stature.”
The 2010 US Open Champion Graeme McDowell, whose best finish at the Irish Open was tied 11th in 2004, will complete the four-strong contingent of Major Champions to emerge from Ireland in recent years.
Shane Lowry, who provided one of the most thrilling European Tour victories of recent times when he triumphed as an amateur at Baltray in 2009, will give the fans even more reason to be optimistic of witnessing another home victory, as will the presence of Ulsterman Michael Hoey, winner of the Madeira Islands Open earlier this season.
Home favourites Peter Lawrie and Damien McGrane will be hoping to add to their solitary European Tour victories, whilst former champions Stephen Dodd of Wales (2005), the English duo of David Carter (1998) and Richard Finch (2008), Denmark’s Søren Hansen (2002), Australian Brett Rumford (2004) and Sweden’s Patrik Sjöland (2000) will be bidding, alongside defending champion Ross Fisher of England, to become the first man since Colin Montgomerie in 2001 to win the Irish Open title on more than one occasion.
Montgomerie is also in the field for the tournament, which will be sponsored for the first time by Discover Ireland.