By Brian Keogh
Great Dane Thomas Bjorn began his chase for a double Irish with a heartfelt triple whammy at Adare Manor.
The defending champion is one of the few big names to turn up for an Irish Open that is badly in need of a big week.
But he stood head and shoulders above the 2006 Ryder Cup stars who are elsewhere this week when he defended the European Tour as a vibrant force, praised Europe’s deep well of hidden talent and pointed at Padraig Harrington as a superstar whose presence proves the Irish Open is alive and well.
As the doomsdayers lamented the absence of virtually every top European player from the field, Bjorn paid a massive compliment to Harrington for his loyalty to his home event.
He said simply: “The most important player of all is here.”
No wonder his nickname is Frank. He just says what he thinks.
While Darren Clarke’s absence through injury is for Bjorn, “a big loss” for the tournament, Bjorn insisted that he wouldn’t miss the tournament for the world.
The big man lifted the Waterford Crystal Trophy at Carton House last year with an amazing comeback from an opening 78.
But he has even fonder memories of the pints he lifted in downtown Ballybunion in 2000 or the way he crowd reacted to him at Portmarnock the week after he blew the 2003 Open at Sandwich.
As the European Tour struggles to keep its top players from heading to the PGA Tour and its $10 million FedEx Cup pay-off, Bjorn insists that some things are more important than money.
Besides, the future is bright with a constellation of young European stars waiting to be discovered.
He said: “I don’t think I’ve missed the Irish Open too many times in my career. I have a great relationship with this tournament, not just because I won last year; I lost to Campbell in a play-off in Portmarnock.
“I enjoyed my time in Ballybunion more off the golf course than on it. It’s a priority of mine to come back because I enjoy the golf tournament and I enjoy Ireland.
“When I do my schedule I look at the golf courses. But in this instance, I look more at the country than the golf course.”
Harrington is the bookies favourite to lift the title ahead of Lee Westwood and Bjorn with Graeme McDowell the great outside hope for Irish fans.
And like Bjorn, Harrington believes that the unique Irish atmosphere will make the event great again in an era when competition to attract the top players is stiffer than ever.
Harrington said: “Growing the Irish Open will happen. The more people see the venue, the more it will bring back players and they more they will tell other players and it will build up.
“But you do need that commitment from a promoter and I have to thank Tom Kane as an individual rather than anything else.
“He is really putting the effort into making the Irish Open into a top-tier tournament on the European Tour again, or the World Tour I should say.”
The addition of 342 yards to the course, the heavy rough and the bad weather forecast does not make any difference to Bjorn.
He hopes tees will be moved up, adding to the excitement for the fans who like to see birdies and eagles as much as they enjoy watching the stars struggle for pars.
And while the field has been rated as low key, Bjorn points out that there is a new generation of fearless young talent to be seen this week.
He said: “We’ve got to start looking at the talent we have coming through, instead of saying the top guys are not playing. The top guys are just changing.
“We have a major generation change. People don’t know that many of the players on this tour. But in five years time a lot of these players will be the strength of the tour.
“Players like Oliver Wilson and Ross Fisher are two with a great future. Alvaro Quiros out of Spain is a great player. Andres Romero. They are players that will take their game to a different level.
“There’s no fear with these guys. When I came out on tour, you had a lot of respect for your Faldos and Olazabals and your Montgomeries. It took time to feel comfortable but these kids don’t care. The just want to win golf tournaments.”