The 5 Greatest Irish Golfers of All Time
Ireland. One of the most respected golfing nations in the world. The fans are well versed in the old arts of the game, standing respectfully when someone makes an error, clapping and cheering when the ball goes in the hole. There is no more passionate country about the game and the courses match up to it.
Lachinch, the K Club, Portmarnock, Royal County Down, Royal Portrush, Adare Manor, Fota, Ballybunion. No matter where you look, you see great courses that have hosted greatness. Parkland? We have some of the most lush and beautiful courses. Links? Unparalleled except for maybe Scotland.
And the golfers? That’s why we’re here!
This is one of the articles we’ve most looked forward to writing. The 5 Greatest Irish Golfers of All Time. We grew up watching these people, idolising them. Whether it was Christy O’Connor Jnr hitting a famous 2 iron in the 1989 Ryder Cup to the 18th hole at the Belfry or Paul Mcginley holing the winning putt at the 2002 Ryder Cup, again at the Belfry (coincidence, eh?), we have watched and seen it all.
And so we have to choose the best our small island has to offer to the golfing world. Irish golfers have won hundreds of tournaments around the world and will continue to win hundreds more. They have claimed Ryder Cups and World Golf Championships and Majors and no doubt in the future, Olympic Medals.
Making this decision in a way is like trying to choose between your children. Every one of them holds a special place in your heart and it seems cruel, almost a betrayal, and impossible to choose one over the other. But the impossible is the task we are faced with so without further ado, let’s get into it.
There are so many people vying for an honourable mention it’s mind-boggling. Paul Mcginley, Fred Daly, Ronan Rafferty, Joe Carr, Christy O’Connor Jnr, Des Smyth, Eamonn Darcy, Harry Bradshaw. But while all these players were incredible and accomplished players, it was difficult to look past the current generation and 2019 Open Champion Shane Lowry.
Lowry burst onto the golfing scene as a fresh-faced 22-year-old in 2009 when he pulled off one of the most incredible feats, winning the Irish Open as an amateur. Whilst not the first amateur to win on the European Tour – that feat had already been achieved by Pablo Martin Benavides and Danny Lee – it was certainly the most impressive. And the scenes after he sunk the winning putt in the playoff against Robert Rock were nothing short of raucous.
But time moves on and so does Lowry’s career. He has built a reputation for himself as having one of the best touches on tour and a short game that would leave most salivating. However, despite his immense talent, wins were hard to come by.
It would take Lowry three years before claiming victory at the Portugal Masters and another three to claim his third win, this time the high-profile WGC American Express Championship. And at this point one might have expected him to kick on and become a regular winner on tour but unfortunately that again didn’t happen.
It wasn’t until 2019 that Lowry would have the best season of his career and claim two wins, the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and more importantly, The Open Championship. And with that win Lowry etched himself even further into the annals of history.
Now ranked 42nd in the world, some way off his peak of 16th, he is pushing for a Ryder Cup place under friend and compatriot, Padraig Harrington, something he will hopefully qualify for. Aged 34, one gets the feeling that there is a natural ability to Lowry that will keep him competitive in the game for a long time to come.
The Offaly man has achieved a lot so far in his career to earn him this honourable mention and hopefully he will achieve even more going forward.
5. Graeme McDowell
GMac is a cool guy. He’s friendly, happy and as gritty as they come. And while he has not been playing his best stuff as of late, his career to date has been stellar.
Born in Portrush, Antrim, McDowell had links golf in his blood. Apparently, he had a ton of ability in that blood too! After a successful amateur career he turned pro in 2002, aged 23, and won the Volvo Scandinavian Masters in only his fourth European Tour start.
A number of consistent, if unspectacular, years followed where Graeme recorded one further win over the next five years. 2008 proved to be something of a breakout year as he won twice on Tour, claiming the Ballantines Championship and the Barclays Scottish Open. This led him to a career high at the time of 29th in the world but it would only prove to be a precursor, a mere taste, of McDowell’s true ability and what he would really achieve.
2009 proved to be another middling season but everything changed in 2010 as McDowell entered golfing stardom. Wins at Celtic Manor, Valderrama and the Chevron World Challenge paled compared to his greatest triumph, the US Open.
Heading into the final round at Pebble Beach, he was three back of Dustin Johnson. The big hitting American capitulated though and McDowell ground out a one stroke victory ahead of Frenchman Gregory Havret for the memorable win.
Amazingly, that wasn’t the extent of McDowell’s great year. He was also part of the winning Ryder Cup team, again at Celtic Manor where he secured the victory for Europe after an incredible display of nerves and determination to get the better of Hunter Mahan in the final singles match on Monday. Despite finishing second on the money list, McDowell was awarded the European Tour Player of the Year award for his fine performances.
McDowell’s quality performances would continue and in early 2011 he reached a career best of 4th in the world. More great performances would continue. He has won a total of 8 times since then but it has not all been without issue.
A dry spell from 2016 to 2018 saw him drop down as far as 259th in the world and he battled back in recent times from that slump. This season has seen him hit by another slump though, one that has resulted in 8 missed cuts out of 11.
Aged 41, McDowell has remained defiant in the face of this and we can only imagine the Major winner and Ryder Cup star still has a number of glory days left.
4. Darren Clarke
Like so many of his peers, Clarke was a talented amateur golfer. In 1989 he won the East of Ireland Championship and in 1990 he completed a trio of victories, the Spanish International Amateur Championship, the Irish Amateur Close Championship and the South of Ireland Championship. Shortly after, Clarke turned pro.
He played his first full season on the European Tour in 1991 and claimed his first victory in 1995, establishing himself inside the world’s top 100 in the world in the process. Four consistent seasons followed before Clarke really took the step up to the next level. 13 wins worldwide from ’98 to ’05 and a career best of 8th in the world cemented his place as one of Europe’s most preeminent players.
In the midst of all this was a victory at the WGC Match Play Championship in 2000 where he defeated prime Tiger Woods 4&3 in the final. He would again taste WGC success in 2003 when won the WGC-NEC Invitational.
Following ’05, the wins came in bursts for Clarke. He claimed victory twice in ’08 and twice again in ’11. The last, and most notable of these, was his Open Championship triumph at Royal St George’s. After not having recorded a top ten in a Major for a decade, Clarke finished three ahead of Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson to claim the Claret Jug at the age of 42 and cap off a marvellous career.
But it is perhaps another triumph that headlines his career. In 2006, disaster struck Clarke’s life when his wife, Heather, passed away from breast cancer. Six weeks later he played in the Ryder Cup at the K Club in Ireland and in the midst of the heartbreak and the emotion, he produced one of the greatest ever Ryder Cup performances to win all three of his matches.
Now 52, Clarke plays on the Champions Tour where he already has two wins to his name. No matter what he does for the rest of his career, he will always go down as one of the greatest Irish golfers of all time.
3. Christy O’Connor Snr
Known by his peers as “Himself”, O’Connor Snr was a force to be reckoned with during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s with his professional wins even spanning into the 80’s! A total of 64 professional wins throughout his career, the vast majority of them predate the creation of the European Tour in 1970.
As a result, he only recorded one win on the European Tour, a win at the Carroll’s Open in 1972 at the age of 47. This happened to be his fourth win at the event, his first three coming in ’64, ’66 and ’67.
But before the European Tour, there was the European Circuit which was a group of independently run tournaments and through the years 1955 to 1970, O’Connor Snr claimed 22 victories, besting some of the biggest stars of the time such as Joe Carr, Peter Thomson, Roberto de Vicenzo, Tommy Horton and Tony Jacklin.
O’Connor Snr was a giant in his homeland. He won 33 other professional events during his regular career, most coming in Ireland. He won the Irish PGA Championship a massive 10 times, a record he shares with Harry Bradshaw. 20 years separated the first of these 10 wins from the last, which came in 1978 at the ripe old age of 53. This is made even more impressive when it is taken into account his son finished runner up in ’77! He also had 8 Senior Tour wins to his name, winning the PGA Senior Championship 6 times and the World Senior Championship twice.
Perhaps the only thing missing from his record was a major victory though his chances were hampered as he only ever played in the Open Championship. He recorded 10 top ten finishes in 26 starts. His best finish came at the ’65 tournament where he finished in a tie for second, two shots behind Peter Thomson. Also present in the field that week were Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Sam Snead and Bob Charles.
The final part of O’Connor Snr’s career to highlight is his Ryder Cup record. He played in a tournament very different to the one we know now. In Christy’s day, Continental Europe was not yet a part of the team to take on the Americans and it led to an incredibly one-sided affair. He played in 10 Ryder Cups, only Nick Faldo managed more appearances for the Europeans, and was part of the winning 1957 team, the only win the Europeans would have in a 21-tournament spell running from 1935 all the way up to 1983! (He was also part of the 1969 team that earned a tie).
O’Connor Snr passed away in 2016 aged 91 and has left behind a legacy that will last through the ages.
2. Rory McIlroy
Ok, ok, there’s going to be controversy on the one and two selected here. Yes, McIlroy has more majors than any other Irish golfer and yes, he has won more high-profile events and yes, he is the only Irish golfer ever to make it to the world number one spot, but does that make him the greatest? Ok, maybe in your eyes it does.
If there was ever a golfer built for the big stage it was McIlroy. A prodigy golfer with oodles of charisma, talent and confidence in equal amount, everything about him seemed effortless and natural.
He first entered the golfing world’s consciousness when he made his European Tour debut as an amateur in 2005, a little over a week after his 16th birthday. He had to wait until early 2007 before making his first cut on Tour. Later in the year he made the cut in the Open Championship at Carnoustie and finished as the top ranked amateur, the same year as Padraig Harrington’s maiden major triumph.
He turned pro after that and recorded two top 5 finishes in his next three starts. His first win came in 2009, a year that carried with it a further 13 top tens. It was 2010, however, that would catapult McIlroy’s career into the stratosphere.
Quail Hollow. A name that will forever be synonymous with McIlroy’s career no matter what he does or how many tournaments he wins. Quail Hollow. He won the 2010 Championship just two days before his 21stbirthday in one of the most incredible weekend performances ever seen. After the making the cut on the number, Mcilroy shot 66, 62 to romp home to a 4 shot victory over Phil Mickelson.
And since then he has been a talisman for European golf. Even though others have risen up the rankings and found themselves at the top of the game, it is McIlroy’s aura that burns the brightest.
To date he has recorded 4 major victories. Two PGA Championships, one Open Championship and one US Open. All he needs is a Masters to complete the set. But having not won a major in seven years, the question is will he ever be able to complete the Grand Slam?
Recently, Rory has taken to rearranging some of his backroom staff. While he still works with lifelong coach, Michael Bannon, he has also enlisted the help of Pete Cowen. Early signs are mixed, though he did recently win the Well Fargo Championship.
Still only 32, we look forward to seeing many more years to come with Rory at the top of the game.
1. Padraig Harrington
And here is where the controversy occurs. Sure, if you’re going on accolades then McIlroy would be at the top of the list but as this list is for the “Great Irish Golfers of All Time” and given Harrington is the author’s sporting hero and he grew up watching him, then only one man can top the list.
A 3-time major champion with one of the grittiest and best short games to have ever graced the game, Harrington’s success was predicated by one thing. Hard work. As he said in an interview after winning the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie, “I’m a worker”. Nick Faldo further asserted how hard he worked, comparing him to Ben Hogan and saying he hit millions of balls to get where he was. If you want to relieve that wonderful win, Wilson Staff created a fantastic tribute video soon after he claimed victory.
Harrington started his professional career in 1996, a decision that was questioned by some even in his family as he didn’t have the best technical swing amongst his brothers. But he was soon vindicated as he won the Peugeot Spanish Open in the same year by four strokes, coupled with eight further top ten finishes.
Harrington never let up. He recorded 5 runner up finishes in ’99 and in 2000 claimed his second and third European Tour victories. This would start a meteoric run in Harrington’s career where he would win 16 tournaments in 9 years on the European and PGA Tours, culminating in 3 famous major victories. Two Open Championships and one PGA Championship. These were enough for him to win the European Tour Player of the Year in ’07 and ’08 whilst winning PGA Player of the Year and PGA Tour Player of the year in ’08.
Since then the wins have dried up somewhat but this past decade or so has still been dotted with successes. Two wins on the Asian Tour, a PGA Grand Slam of Golf, the Portugal Masters on the European Tour and perhaps most impressively, a win at the 2015 Honda Classic on the PGA Tour. He recently finished in a T4th at the US Open, his first top ten at a major in 9 years – the last, coincidentally, also happened to be a T4th at the US Open in 2012.
A six-time Ryder Cup player, he also has the honour of captaining this year’s side as they go up against a very strong American side at Whistling Straits in what was a COVID-delayed event.
Now aged 49 and less than two months away from qualifying for the Seniors Tour, Harrington’s prime is behind him. But that does not mean the magic is gone and there is a sense that he may just have one or two more wins on the main stage left in him. Here’s hoping!
Whatever happens with the remainder of his career, Harrington has been the best ambassador Irish golf could have ever asked for. He has provided entertainment and acted as a role model and been an icon to a whole generation.
Do you agree with our Top 5 and Honourable Mention? If you have any comments on it please get in touch with us through Facebook or Instagram. We are very keen to hear from you!