KILLARNEY, Ireland (AP) After establishing Ireland as the focal point of golf, newly crowned British Open winner Darren Clarke, U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy and two other local major winners will descend on Killarney for the rejuvenated Irish Open.
Clarke's three-shot victory at Royal St. George's sealed Northern Ireland's third major in 13 months after Graeme McDowell and McIlroy's triumphs in successive U.S. Opens. That followed three wins in grand slam events between 2007-08 for Padraig Harrington of Ireland.
Clarke is aiming to become only the third player to hold both British and Irish Open titles, after Nick Faldo of England and Harrington, who is also competing this week.
"It would be a hell of an achievement - a dream come true - to have The Open and Irish Open trophies on display back home," Clarke said on the European Tour website. "I've been close on a number of occasions and never quite got the job done - a bit like The Open you could say."
Following his victory two weeks ago, the Northern Irishman's exuberant celebrations received a lot of attention on radio shows. Clarke defended his behavior, suggesting it shouldn't have become an issue.
"I won a golf tournament and people are concerned about whether or not I had one pint too many. I mean, get a life - it's sport," Clarke said Wednesday, according to the British Press Association. "People are entitled to their opinion, but there are bigger and more important things than me winning a tournament."
The 42-year-old Clarke's first appearance on the European Tour came at the Irish Open, as an amateur in 1990. He finished 50th, 18 shots behind winner Jose Maria Olazabal.
The favorite this week at Killarney Golf and Fishing Club is McIlroy who, alongside Clarke, was made an honorary life member of the European Tour on Wednesday for their achievements in this year's majors.
Despite his success this season, McIlroy said it would still be special to win the Irish Open.
"To win your national Open is a huge goal of anyone's. You want to win your national Open and it would be a huge achievement." McIlroy said on the website. "I think with Darren doing what he did a couple of weeks ago, and myself winning in the U.S., I think there's a tremendous atmosphere and a great buzz about the tournament."
After the Irish Open, McIlroy will return to his preferred climate and conditions in America, competing in the WGC Bridgestone Invitational and PGA Championship.
With two Northern Irishmen leading the challengers, along with the presence of McDowell and Harrington, organizers are expecting record crowds of 100,000 for the tournament, which starts Thursday.
Despite the anticipation, the event has overcome several obstacles.
The official sponsors pulled out in favor of backing the Irish soccer team, meaning the prize money was reduced by 50 percent. Before the successes of McIlroy and Clarke, ticket sales were slow, partly because of the Irish economy.
Along with the favorites, Irish hopes will be on former Ryder Cup vice-captain Paul McGinley and 2009 champion Shane Lowry. Lowry defeated Robert Rock of England in a playoff for the victory as an amateur.
Englishman Ross Fisher will look to his defend title, having won the tournament by two shots ahead of Harrington.
He was helped by a second-round, course record 10-under-par 61.