The Nissan Irish Open turns full circle this week when the tournament returns to Portmarnock Golf Club, one of the world’s most famous traditional links courses and the venue for the first edition of this great championship in 1927.
Much as changed since Scotland’s George Duncan added the Irish Open title to the Open Golf Championship he won seven years earlier. In those days it would have been inconceivable that a golfer from Denmark would compete in the event, let alone win it as Søren Hansen did at Fota Island 12 months ago.
Exactly 77 years on, Hansen will defend the title in illustrious company. He is joined by seven past champions in David Carter and Mark James of England, Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie, José Maria Olazábal of Spain, Sweden’s Patrik Sjöland, another Scot, Sam Torrance and Welshman Ian Woosnam.
Olazábal, in fact, was the last champion at Portmarnock in 1990 before the event spent a dozen years ‘on the road’, taking in Killarney, Mount Juliet, Druids Glen, Ballybunion and Fota Island.
James and Woosnam both savoured victory twice over the historic old links, which remains one of nature’s finest treats. The 1999 Ryder Cup Captain took the trophy home in 1979 and 1980 while Woosnam also managed back to back triumphs in 1988 and 1989. Torrance, who was to succeed at Mount Juliet in 1995, won at Portmarnock in 1981, a year before the Irish cheered home one of their own, John O’Leary.
Last year Hansen became one of four Danish winners on The European Tour International Schedule when he defeated England’s Richard Bland, Niclas Fasth of Sweden and Darren Fichardt of South Africa at the fourth hole of a sudden-death play-off.
Carter also enjoyed his success after a play-off at Druids Glen when he denied Montgomerie the opportunity to equal the feat of Nick Faldo, who won three years in a row from 1991 to 1993. However Montgomerie did collect that elusive third title in 2001 with an accomplished performance at Fota Island.
A total of 11 champions on The European Tour International Schedule will tee up in the first Nissan-sponsored Irish Open, chasing an increased prize fund of €1,800,000, including Dublin’s local hero, Padraig Harrington. Also competing are Arjun Atwal, Paul Casey, Bradley Dredge, Kenneth Ferrie, Darren Fichardt, Mark Foster, Philip Golding, Greg Owen, Ian Poulter and Phillip Price.
The latter will be chasing an ‘Irish Double’, having triumphed in the Smurfit European Open at the start of the month. Price claimed his third win on The European Tour International Schedule by a stroke from Alastair Forsyth and Mark McNulty.
England’s Luke Donald, who won on the US PGA Tour last season, has accepted an invitation to play in Ireland along with fellow countryman, Robert Rock, who makes his sixth start on the Tour after taking up Affiliate Membership prior to the Benson and Hedges International Open. Since then the Midlands professional, now attached to The De Vere Belfry, has accumulated €153,865 and stands in 91st place on the Volvo Order of Merit. A good week at Portmarnock could enable him to secure his card for the 2004 season.