Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, the last two U.S. Open champions, won over the hearts of Americans as only Irishmen can

June 10, 2012

The Scots brought golf to America, Donald Ross and Tom Bendelow as your pathfinder architects, Willie Anderson and Tommy Armour as your prototype professionals. The immigrants taught us to embrace nasty weather and the game's grim rules. The legacy of Generation Haggis endures at some of the great bastions of American golf, places where you might find an old, striped USGA tie alongside forgotten scarves in dark cloakrooms. In this regard, San Francisco Golf Club, Shinnecock Hills and Merion come to mind. You did well, men. On behalf of anyone who has ever hit a chasing two-iron off a parched fairway, we say thank you.

But here's the reality. American golf doesn't take its cues from Scotland anymore. In fact, it hasn't for a century now. American golfers aren't really interested in the craggy, dour Scottish version of the game. Our golf has an Irish lilt. The story of American golf is the story of Irish-American golf. Our golf is about gambling, sunshine, beers from the back of the cart, cigars, wedges over ponds that leave craters on our emerald greens and vanity "newspaper scores" that turn a 93 into an 89, "legit." Our golf is about hanging out with friends, in no rush to go anywhere. It's Irish to its core.

If Peter Hanson and Fredrik Jacobson, two stolid Swedes, had won the last two U.S. Opens, posters would have been all atwitter over a single question: What's wrong with American golf? But because the last two U.S. Opens were won by two likable Ulstermen—Rory McIlory last year in our nation's capital, Graeme McDowell the year before at the most iconic of American courses, Pebble Beach Golf Links—there were no cyberscreeds. We took the boys in like long lost cousins.

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Last year, a month after he won at Congressional by eight shots, McIlroy played in the British Open at Royal St. Georges, where he finished 12 shots behind Darren Clarke. (Yet another likable Ulsterman.) After his final round, Rory, wind-whipped and soaked, told the press that he preferred to play in the still, warm sunshine of the American summer. This characteristic display of candor was of course mocked in the various outposts of the Calvinist Golf Police. On our side of the pond all we did was nod.

And how about at Bay Hill in March, when McDowell and Tiger Woods played in the last group in the last round of Arnold's tournament? Who were you rooting for on that Sunday? McDowell was then in the throes of construction, building a big house down the street in swanky Lake Nona, complete with a Guinness spigot and golf carts for his two brothers, George the house painter and Gary the greenkeeper. Is there any part of that that's hard to relate to? Tiger has always been an exotic. Fascinating, but unknowable. We felt we knew Graeme from the day we saw him in his painter's cap at Pebble. Five weeks later, talking about the expectations and the demands and everything that comes with being the Open champion, McDowell said, "I've enjoyed it all." A breath of fresh air.

McDowell came to the U.S. in 1998 to play golf at Alabama-Birmingham. For spending money he caddied at Shoal Creek. Twelve years later he became the first Irishman (either side of the border) to win the U.S. Open. But it didn't feel like one of those culturally significant occasions, did it? Not to most Americans. A full century before, a Philadelphia teenager of Irish descent, Johnny McDermott, got himself into a three-way playoff to decide the 1910 national championship at Philadelphia Cricket Club. (Alex Smith, a Scot, won.) The next year Johnny Mac, brash and cheeky, went to Chicago Golf Club and became the first American-born winner of the national championship. Irish-Americans have been at the core of American golf ever since.

What a parade: Fred Corcoran and Mark McCormack (promoters), Mark O'Meara and Patty Sheehan (Hall of Fame players), Bing Crosby and Jackie Gleason (tournament hosts), Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (Oval Office duffers). With their homes in Florida, and their PGA Tour cards in their wallets, Rory and Graeme fit right in. Rory's win at Congressional got him an invitation to the White House. He promised Obama he'd get the First Swing sorted out, although right now he's kind of busy with his own. In any event, an accommodating lad.

They both are. McDowell and McIlroy, both single and represented by Horizon Sports in Dublin, make time for fans, reporters, various sponsors, family, themselves, each other. After missing the cut at the Players Championship in May, McIlroy stood in the mid-afternoon Florida sun and playfully stretched McDowell, his close friend and Ryder Cup partner. "It's almost a big brother–little brother kind of thing," McDowell said that day. McDowell is 32 and McIlroy is 23. "But that doesn't mean I don't want to beat him." His eyes were all smiley.

There are roughly 35 million Americans claiming a connection to Ireland. On certain holy days—like U.S. Open Sunday—about 75 of them will gather at Durty Nelly's, a pub a few miles down the road from Olympic, where the Open will be played next week. Nelly's is owned by a man named Vivian Walsh, who shoots in the 70s (legit) and is from the Irish port city of Galway. He has flags signed by Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley on the walls of his pub and, like millions of others, the golfing fortunes of McIlroy and McDowell on his mind.

Walsh has played dozens of times, as a guest, at private (but not ritzy) Olympic, where there are Irish-Americans by the score, including lawyers, police officers, firemen, contractors and, Walsh says, "publicans." He has never met McIlroy or McDowell, but he knows people who know them, and he has been watching the run-up to the Open as keenly as anybody. There was Rory on Walsh's telly, missing cuts at the Players, at the European tour's PGA and last week at the Memorial, admitting along the way that he hadn't been practicing hard enough. ("These two-day weeks aren't really that good for me," McIlroy said in Ohio.) There was Graeme at the Euro PGA, blaming nobody but himself for a two-shot penalty at the hands of a bobbling ball. "The way they handled those things tells me these are boys who were raised right," Walsh says. It's a common view.

Walsh was in the grandstand at Pebble when McDowell won while the patrons at his pub 100 or so miles away erupted in song. A year later a similar scene, uncannily, replayed itself, except this time Walsh was behind his own bar. McIlroy's victory was a "stunning achievement," Walsh says, but Congressional played long and wet, "and he's not going to have the freedom off the tee at Olympic that he did there." Walsh views Rory as the more talented of the two golfers—who has more talent than Rory?—but says Graeme has "more cunning." Walsh was asked to pick one as the winner at Olympic, with his own money at stake. He hemmed and hawed, hemmed and hawed. "Graeme," he finally answered, unhappily. Naming a favorite son is an impossible task.

When Graeme was winning at Pebble in 2010, Rory was at home in Holywood, near Belfast, watching on TV. He had missed the cut. Graeme's triumph brought Rory no envy, just inspiration. In his next three majors he tied for third in both the 2010 British Open at St. Andrews and the PGA at Whistling Straits and was leading through three rounds at the 2011 Masters before his Sunday blowup. Then came the U.S. Open.

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When Rory arrived at Congressional on Open Sunday, he found a note from Graeme in his locker. It was hand-written on Congressional Country Club stationery, a half-dozen sentences from a friend, a surrogate big brother, a countryman and a pathfinder. Advice from the defending U.S. Open champion. The note is stashed in a safe place, far from sunlight and far from Memphis, where Rory is playing this week, an emergency add-on. (You imagine he'll turn things around before too long.) Someday, maybe, many years from now, that note will be on display in a museum. The essence of Graeme's message is embedded in Rory's brain: Stick to your game plan. Show people how good you are. Don't focus on the magnitude of the situation. You are one of the greatest players in the world.

There was no Sunday blowup this time, as Rory shot a lock-it-down 69. He was untouchable. When he holed out on 18, Graeme was there, greenside, in no rush to go anywhere. They hugged, Rory in his blue shirt, Graeme in his red one, both wearing white pants, the stands erupting. America likes these lads, and the feeling is mutual. As Tommy Armour used to say, It's all good.