From Eamonn Darcy to Paul McGinley, the Emerald Isle has made a staggering contribution to Europe's Ryder Cup success over the last 17 years. And the visiting team isn't taking any chances at Oakland Hills Country Club this week, stocking its 12-man roster with McGinley and countryman Padraig Harrington, along with Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland.
'It just seems to keep coming down to the Irish guys,' Clarke said. 'It's a great little piece of history to be part of.'
The U.S. team is loaded with some of the world's top players, including Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Davis Love III. But it probably wouldn't hurt for everyone to have a four-leaf clover in the bag.
Harrington is the top-ranked player on the European team, McGinley may be the hottest and Clarke has beaten Woods twice with different partners.
'The Irish guys have done exceptionally well,' Harrington said. 'There was some heritage that was always there, and I was very conscious of it when I was growing up playing golf.'
Indeed, Irish eyes have produced some unlikely Ryder Cup heroes.
In 1987, when Europe won the event for the first time on American soil at Muirfield, Darcy came through with a totally unexpected singles point on the final day.
The Irishman was winless in 10 previous Ryder Cup matches, and it looked like that record would remain intact when Ben Crenshaw went ahead for the first time at the 16th.
But Darcy won the final two holes and the match. After making a testy, downhill putt from 4 feet to save par at 18, American captain Jack Nicklaus even gave the Irishman an admiring pat on the back.
Darcy snapped a run of four straight U.S. wins, inspiring Europe to a 15-13 victory.
'I still think that is one of the best putts I've ever seen holed,' Harrington said. '(The ball) was going to go off the green if it missed.'
Two years later, Christy O'Connor Jr. was the hero for Europe. The Irishman evened his match with Fred Couples by making a 4-footer at 16, the ball wavering on the lip of the cup before falling in. O'Connor sighed deeply, looked toward the sky and mouthed a silent prayer.
Couples missed a 3-footer at 17, keeping the match even going to the final hole. That's where O'Connor unleashed one of the most memorable shots in Ryder Cup history -- a 2-iron from 240 yards that rolled within 3 1/2 feet of the cup. Couples shanked an easy pitch and wound up conceding the hole to O'Connor, who broke down in tears. The match ended in a 14-14 tie, good enough to keep the chalice in European hands.
After the United States won the next two Ryder Cup matches, unheralded Phillip Walton helped bring the trophy back to the Irish side of the Atlantic.
Shortly after making the turn at Oak Hill Country Club, Walton realized the importance of his match with Jay Haas.
'I had a feeling,' Walton said. 'There were a lot of people around the green.'
The Irishman was 3-up with three holes to play, but Haas holed out from the bunker at 16 and Walton missed a 4-foot putt that would have clinched the match at 17.
Not to worry.
Haas popped up his tee shot on the 18th into the trees, had to lay up, then hit a sand wedge that spun off the green into the rough. He chipped some 8 feet past the hole and had that left for bogey.
Walton wound up in the thick rough in front of the green, but a deft wedge shot left him just 10 feet from the hole. When his birdie putt trickled just 12 inches past the hole, Haas conceded the match to Walton and the Ryder Cup to Europe.
'Irish eyes are crying,' NBC's Dick Enberg told the American television audience. 'Phillip Walton has won it for Europe.'
Then came McGinley in 2002, sinking an 8-foot par putt on the final hole to bring the cup back to Europe again. 'Out of the shadows come heroes,' captain Sam Torrance said.
Rebounding from a 2-down deficit, McGinley caught Jim Furyk on the 17th hole and put him away on the 18th. The Europeans celebrated by tossing McGinley into a lake; after emerging from the water, he held up a green-white-and-orange Irish flag.
'It was a wonderful moment that I will never forget,' McGinley said this week.
In 2006, the odds will really be stacked in Ireland's favor. The biennial matches are coming to the isle for the first time, awarded to the K Club as a reward for the Celtics' immense contributions to the event.
'I'm very proud the Ryder Cup is going to Ireland,' McGinley said. 'Not so much for me and Darren and Padraig, who are playing now, but to guys like Christy O'Connor and Eamonn Darcy ... those guys who have done it over the years.
'Those guys paved the way for Ireland.'
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