Green planet — Irish golf taking on the world
Rory McIlroy. Picture: Getty Images

Rory McIlroy. Picture: Getty Images

Irish golf  might be struggling somewhat to ease  players onto the main tours, but when we have the world No 2 heading a five-strong posse in Dubai, a multiple major champion and a WGC winner accompanying a stellar rookie in the US, a Walker Cup winner making his pro debut in Australia and a pair of ambitious Munster men doing their thing from Myanmar to Colombia, it’s clearly not all that bad.

That McIlroy, Shane Lowry and Paul Dunne are the only Irish players under 30 with cards on any of the world’s Major tours can be interpreted in many ways. Either standards worldwide have risen so high that Ireland is simply being outgunned by weight of numbers or our methods need closer examination.

The Team Ireland Golf Trust will make its 2016 allocations some time this month but it's a fact that 40% of the 20 European or Challenge Tour wins celebrated by the more than 80 grant recipients over the past 16 years are all down to one man — Michael Hoey. 

It’s possible that Niall Turner, who tees it up in this week’s Leopalace21 Myanmar Open on the Asian Tour, will be the next to make it. Or will it be the massively talented Ardglass talent Cormac Sharvin, 100% in the Walker Cup and snapped up by IMG for his pro debut in the Oates Vic Open in Melbourne? Or perhaps it will fall to Seamus Power on the Tour’s Club Colombia Championship to break through.

The big hitting West Waterford man has the skills to make it to the PGA Tour, and so too does Open Championship hero Paul Dunne, who joins Lowry and Pádraig Harrington in the Waste Management Open in Phoenix hoping to take advantage of a sponsor’s invitation for the second week running.

An impressive tied 13th with Lowry on his PGA Tour debut in that wind-ravaged Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines on Monday, the 23-year old from Greystones continues to exceed the expectations of others but not his own.

“Other people’s expectations don’t influence you,” told RTE this week. “I just try to handle my expectations for myself and try and handle myself well and just play as good golf as I can. At the end of the day, you don’t live or die whether you shoot 80 or 60.”

Dunne has a laudable attitude and he’s determined to take advantage of an “amazing opportunity” as he continues to chase the American dream in Phoenix this week.

The 23-year old from Greystones tees it up at TPC Scottsdale knowing that while a win would be the Holy Grail, a second place finish would open the doors to a US career.

A cool $126,000 richer following his San Diego start, Dunne needs “only” another 303 FedEx Cup points to earn Special Temporary Membership of the PGA Tour and unlimited invitations for the rest of the season.

A win would be the dream scenario but he would have enough with a second place finish this week, or two big results if he were also to play well on an invitation in next week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

After landing a last gasp invitation for what is the world’s biggest golfing party at TPC Scottsdale in Phoenix — crowds regularly top 500,000 — Dunne is simply happy to build on the confidence he got by leading The Open for 54 holes last summer. 

“The Open gave me a lot of belief in my game that I could do well against the best players in the world, so I feel like I’m a better player now than I was at the Open last year, so that gives me confidence,” he said.

“I feel like I’m a better putter now than I was back then, I feel like my ball flight is more consistent and I handle myself a little bit better.”

Now ranked ahead of Tiger Woods at 425th in the world, the former Walker Cup star is joined in Phoenix by Clara’s Shane Lowry and three-time Major winner Pádraig Harrington.

“That’s really weird,” Dunne said of his ranking earlier this week. “I said that to mum yesterday and she said ‘yeah, but he hasn’t been playing’ and I said ‘nobody needs to know that’.”

Lowry and Harrington will also be looking for good weeks in Phoenix with a huge haul of world ranking, and therefore Ryder Cup and Olympic Games qualifying points, up for grabs.

The Olympics and the Ryder Cup are also on the radars of McIlroy and Graeme McDowell as they take on a firm and fast Emirates Golf Club in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

McIlroy eased to world No 2 and past Jason Day after the Australian missed the cut in his title defence at Torrey Pines.

And with a superb record in the emirate — he’s won there x times since 2009 — he’ll be looking to see some results from some intensive putting practice this week.

His opinion was sought on everything from zip-lining over a swimming pool to his vote for the top British (or UK or British Isles) sportsman of all time. 

But while he also got attention for saying he’d still love to go head to head with Tiger Woods down the stretch in a major, he was most interesting on the serious Ryder Cup challenge Europe faces at Hazeltine in September.

“They are a young, hungry team for a reason,” McIlroy said. "There's a lot of guys on that team that haven't tasted success at The Ryder Cup. This is going to be hopefully my fourth Ryder Cup, and going for my fourth win in a row. I'm going to be trying to be part of a team that's won for the last four times.

"If they are, they are motivated, they are hungry and I'm sure they don't want to lose again. And you've got a lot of younger players who will make the team, the likes of a Rickie, a Jordan, Patrick Reed, a few of the younger guys over there that really want to make the team.

"And especially if they have a backroom team like they look like they are going to have with Davis being the captain and, say, Tiger is a vice captain, Phil is a vice captain if they don't make the team, they have got everything there possible to win it back. Then it's up to us and up to all the people in Europe to try and prevent that.

"I would say, I mean, if you look at the last few Ryder Cups, even though we have won them, they have been tight -- maybe not Gleneagles, but you look at the previous two, Medinah and Celtic Manor, they were really, really tight. We were just able to come out on top. They have been closer than people probably realise.”

McDowell also expects a fierce American challenge but he’s more concerned right now on completing his comeback from the nightmare that was most of 2015 and making sure he is in position to challenge for a place in Darren Clarke’s team.

Now 69th, he unexpectedly started his comeback from a slump caused simply by taking his eye off the ball to be with his wife and baby daughter — "Year and a half. Breaking my heart. It’s great” — before Christmas with his win in the OHL Classic at Mayakoba and third place finish the following week in the RSM Classic at Sea Island.

A share of 29th at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions and a missed cut at the Sony Open was not quite what he wanted from his post-Christmas trip to Hawaii but he’s in a far better place than he was three months ago

“I’m just trying to get back to being as well prepared as I can every week I tee it up, and taking the pressure off myself,” he said. "I think when you do — I’ve had a few periods in my career where you’re not playing good and you can panic a little bit, and you start forcing the issue. I think I started forcing it a little bit at the start of the summer last year, when I was starting to play a little better, but I just couldn't get out of my own way because I needed it too badly. It's happened to me a few times.

"I think that win in México was special on a lot of levels because I felt like I really kind of ground it out for four or five months to get there. You know, I did say to myself, if the win came along, I'm going to enjoy the next one that came along.

"I enjoyed México. It was a special win for me, like I say, trying to use that as a bit of a springboard, take the pressure off myself and just get back to believing that I can play the kind of golf that can compete most weeks I tee it up.

"It's been good. It’s a tough old game sometimes, but I feel like I’ve got good people around me to help me stay kind of grounded and neutral, and believing in myself.”

Making it to the Tour Championship in Atlanta for the first time and qualifying for the Ryder Cup team are two big goals while the Olympics, where Lowry has the edge over him in the rankings, remains secondary (for now).

In short, he’ll be playing lots and working harder than ever after the wake up call of 2014-15.

“I’ve got a lot of agendas, but I’ll just be trying to focus and play the same schedule I’ve been playing, adding a couple here and there,” he said. Trying to play a bit more golf and trying to stay sharp and not kind of fall into the complacency that I felt helped me arrive at playing some bad golf end of 2014 into 2015. I’m just trying to avoid that from happening going forward."

Winning is everything and that's all that matters to McIlroy these days. But even McIlroy knows what's realistic.

“Leaving here with anything short of a win would be disappointing – of course it would," he said. "Leaving any tournament without a win is sort of disappointing, but you try to put a positive spin on it. I think golfers, that's what we usually do. We are disappointed for a bit and then we try to put positive spins on it, and the nice thing is there's always a next week in golf. "