Keith Nolan put it like only he could.
Before the final round of the British Open, Nolan offered this bit of humor on Twitter: “Ireland hasn’t won a major in four weeks. We are due.”
The former ETSU All-American golfer known for his comedic wit tweeted in jest, of course. But knowing how well golfers from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have played in majors recently, he wasn’t really kidding.
As it turns out, Ireland got another major before the end of the day. Darren Clarke became the third player from Northern Ireland to win a major in the past two years, joining Graeme McDowell (last year’s U.S. Open) and Rory McIlroy (this year’s U.S. Open).
Throw in Padraig Harrington’s three majors and the Emerald Isle has dominated the world of golf for the better part of the past five years. Irishmen have won six of the last 18 majors. During that same time, Americans have won four.
“I was really excited,” Nolan said in a subsequent interview. “Darren came on the scene 20 years ago. He has won two World Golf events and has had a chance to win the British on a couple of occasions. Watching Padraig, McDowell and Rory win had to have motivated him.”
Nolan, from Dublin, played a practice round with Clarke at the 1996 Irish Open and recalls how gracious golf’s newest major champion was to an amateur still a year away from making the PGA Tour.
“He was awesome,” Nolan said. “He showed me how to hit shots out of heavy rough around the greens.”
Nolan was part of the ETSU team that finished third in the NCAA championship in 1996. In fact, it was his difficult up-and-down par on the final hole at the Honors Course that allowed the Bucs to finish one stroke ahead of Tiger Woods’ Stanford team.
Nolan went on to earn his PGA Tour card in 1997. He’s also spent time on the Nationwide Tour and is caddying these days for former ETSU teammate Garrett Willis. They’re in Canada this week.
Another former ETSU golfer who has a brief history with Clarke is Gareth Shaw, a two-time All-American for the Bucs. Years ago, back home in Northern Ireland, Shaw played in a tournament run by Clarke’s foundation when it was in its first year. Clarke played a few holes with each participant. Rory McIlroy was in the field and Shaw, 14 years old at the time, won it. He still has the trophy.
Clarke gave all the participants an autographed photo and put on a show at the practice range for the youngsters.
“At the driving range, he hit a lot of shots with a driver off the deck,” Shaw said. “He was calling the shots as well — low, high, fade, draw. It was very impressive to watch.”
Shaw, who is playing on the Alps Tour in Europe this year this year, has missed most of his countrymen’s exploits in the recent majors because of his playing schedule.
“I was in Spain and had to listen to Darren win on the radio,” he said. “I also missed watching Rory winning the U.S. Open as I was in France. And I was in Morocco when Rory should have won the Masters. So next time I’m away, I am going to put a bet on one of these Northern Ireland guys.”
Another Irishman who played for the Bucs, Seamus Power, said part of Clarke’s popularity comes from his work with junior golfers.
“He is very popular all over Ireland,” said Power, who plays on the e-golf Tour and qualified for a Nationwide Tour event this year. “He does a lot for underage golfers and has always been popular because of this and his down-to-earth appearance and attitude..”
Although relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have been strained throughout the years — both politically and religiously — when a golfer from one does something particularly spectacular, golfers in the other rejoice as well.
“In golf, we play under one flag,” Nolan said. “We are very close.”