Looking ahead to 2008

By Brian Keogh

Padraig Harrington’s bid for a second major title will keep Irish golf fans glued to their TV screens next season.

But what about Tiger Woods’ bid for golf’s Grand Slam, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell’s bid to make the Ryder Cup team or the waning careers of Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley?

The bookies are already running scared of Woods, who won five or his last six events in the US last season and came close to taking three of the four majors.

The Great One is already a mere 25-1 shot to win the Grand Slam in 2008 but Harrington is also regarded as a big danger with his chances of adding to his major haul rated a 6-1 chance.

Harrington and the rest of Woods’ rivals, know just how difficult it will be to stop Woods at Augusta, Torrey Pines, Birkdale and Oakland Hills next term.

As Harrington said at the end of the season, “Tiger came back to dominate the sport this year.”

After the highs of Carnoustie, Harrington’s best chance of winning another big one will arguably come in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, where he missed the cut in 1998.

Yet he showed at Augusta National last April that he now has the game to don a green jacket and odds of 25-1 prove that he is regarded as well capable of pulling it off.

With one major on his mantelpiece, the Dubliner will not be happy with his lot until he retires and the Masters is a title he would dearly love to add to his list of achievements.

Harrington said: “In 20 years time if I haven’t won any more Majors I will definitely be very happy with myself for having won one Major. But over those 20 years, as I am playing, I will not be happy with myself unless I am going out there and win tournaments.

“I think Augusta is the hardest challenge of them all. It’s the biggest examination. The changes to the course didn’t make it any easier but I think Augusta is the total examination.”

As for Royal Birkdale, Harrington has fond memories of his last visit the the classic English links in the 1998 Open.

He said: “I missed the cut there. But it was my first week working with Bob Torrance and I remember spending the entire hitting ball on the range in a gale.”

Little has changed in the intervening years and while Harrington is keeping his 2008 goals close to his chest, it doesn’t take a genius to work them out.

Defending the Irish Open at Adare Manor in May and snatching back his Order of Merit crown from Justin Rose are just two of Harrington’s big goals next term.

But he has also confessed that he wants to get his Ryder Cup place tucked away early this year and that will mean producing some big performances before the summer squeeze.

Just how many Irishmen will make Nick Faldo’s side remains to be seen and there will be huge interest in the performances of Clarke, McGinley, McIlroy and McDowell this season.

Clarke showed signs that he is about to emerge from his slump when he grabbed his first top 10 finish for 18 months in the South African Open a few weeks ago.

And even Clarke’s close pal Woods is convinced that the Dungannon man is ready to burst back onto the scene in 2008.

Referring to Clarke’s 18 months of grief following the death of his wife Heather, Woods said: “Not too many people can really and truly understand what he's gone through and how hard it's been.

“I think now they're just starting to see the game turn around and I think he's going to make some nice strides this year.”

Clarke’s could need another wildcard to make the Ryder Cup side for the sixth time in 2008 but if his putting comes good he has the talent to make it on merit.

The bad news is that he is ranked 225th in the world and will have to qualify for all the majors this year.

It is a similar scenario for Dubliner McGinley, who played a major role in Europe’s last three Ryder Cup victories.

Down to 207th in the world, McGinley will also struggle to make the Ryder Cup side as he is likely to miss half the majors and World Golf Championships.

Yet he has consistently pulled out the stops to snatch his place in the side and while he turned 41 just two weeks ago, he is determined to bounce back.

Having decided to resign as one of Faldo’s Ryder Cup assistants, McGinley believes he will be better prepared to concentrate on the task of making the team.

McGinley said: “The longer I did the job, the more I realised it was a drain on my energy. There is a lot more golf left in me and I’m determined to come back.”

McIlroy’s meteoric rise through the pro ranks was one of the big stories of 2007.

But whether he can go on and become the youngest player in Ryder Cup history remains to be seen.

His first full season as a pro is likely to be an eye-opener for him and despite his vast experience of life on the road,it will be interesting to see how he progresses if the results fail to come quickly.

The Holywood teenager has the talent to win on tour in 2008 but will he get over the winning line before Peter Lawrie, Gary Murphy or Damien McGrane?

That trio of Irish journeymen have shown signs that they are close to getting over the winning line in recent seasons.

But the player who needs a big result more than most is Ulsterman McDowell.

Having come close to earning his Ryder Cup at the K Club in 2006, McDowell believes he is ready to end a victory drought that dates to May 2003

He is already ranked 16th in the European Ryder Cup list and after dumping Chubby Chandler’s ISM management group in favour of Dublin-based Horizon, he reckons he the best is yet to come.

McDowell said: “This is the start of my best ever Ryder Cup campaign. I have never got off to such a good start and I have never felt so good about my game. I am confident and the energy I have gained from this management move has got me really motivated and really fired up.”

Lower down the pecking order, players of the calibre of Michael Hoey, Stephen Browne, David Higgins, Gareth Maybin and Colm Moriarty will be gunning for their European Tour cards through the Challenge Tour.

Just for fun, here’s my predictions for 2008.

The Majors

Masters - Justin Rose. The Englishman says he wants to be world No 1. While he has a tendency to wobble down the stretch, the world’s most improved player in 2007 has the game to win at Augusta.

US Open - Tiger Woods. Five wins and five top 10s from ten starts in the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines say it all.

The Open - Padraig Harrington. Only Woods and Tom Watson have retained the Claret Jug in recent decades. Harrington knows he can win a big one now and I expect him to come close again on links terrain.

US PGA - KJ Choi. The South Korean grabbed two huge titles in 2007 - Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial and Tiger’s AT&T National. Can become Asia’s first major winner. Next best, Boo Weekley.

Ryder Cup - Expect Nick Faldo’s side to make it four in a row at Valhalla in Kentucky. But don’t expect to see Colin Montgomerie handed a wildcard. The Americans are hungry for revenge but Europe has strength in depth and young blood coming through.

Rory McIlroy - Maiden European Tour victory for McIlroy in 2008 but the Ryder Cup looks like a bridge too far. Will pre-qualify for the US Open at Torrey Pines and cause a surprise.

Emerging star - Jason Day. McIlroy has been talking about the 20 year old Aussie for some time. Got his PGA Tour card though the 2007 Nationwide Tour.

Irish winners - Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell. On the Challenge Tour, Colm Moriarty and Gareth Maybin. Also watch out for Des Smyth on the Champions Tour. He’s due another victory.