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The 13 Best Irish Golfers Of All Time

Golf Care, 12th November 2021

 

A country synonymous with the colour green, Ireland’s wealth of gorgeous countryside lends itself perfectly to golf courses, so it’s hardly a surprise that it’s produced some stellar golfing talent.

Ireland, or the Emerald Isle, as it’s affectionately known, is a fiercely proud nation, and it’s certainly no different when it comes to golf.

Deciding on a list of the best Irish golfers is no easy task, but someone has to do it.

In no particular order, and including Northern Ireland, here’s our selection of the 13 best Irish golfers of all time.

 

Shane Lowry

Born: 2nd April 1987
Professional wins:
5
Highest world ranking: 16th

Sport was very much part of Lowry’s upbringing in Clara, Co. Offaly. Son of Brendan Lowry, who won the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final with Offaly in 1982, it’s no surprise Lowry himself went on to be a professional sportsperson – albeit in a different sport to his Dad!

While still an amateur golfer, Lowry won the Irish Open on the 2009 European Tour (his tour debut), making him only the third amateur in history to secure a European Tour win.

That storming success would soon see him turn professional, where more silverware followed.

His first professional win was at the Portugal Masters in 2012, which propelled him into the world’s top 100.

Though Lowry qualified for his first major tournament in June 2010 – the Open Championship at St Andrews, Scotland – he’d have to wait until the summer of 2019 to record his first major victory at the Open Championship in Portrush, Northern Ireland.

He represented Ireland at the Golf World Cup in 2013, 2016 and 2018, and also played on the European team in the 2021 Ryder Cup.

In 2019, Lowry was awarded RTÉ Sports Person of the Year.

 

Graeme McDowell

Born: 30th July 1979
Professional wins: 16
Highest world ranking: 4th

As record-breaking Irish golfers go, Graeme McDowell, or G-Mac, is up there.

Currently playing on the PGA Tour and European Tour (at the time of writing), McDowell is perhaps best known for his victory at the 2010 US Open. Not only was this his first (and to date, only) major title, but the win also marked the first for a European at the US Open for 40 years.

McDowell’s impressive golf career has seen him win eleven events on the European Tour and four on the PGA Tour. He’s also represented Ireland at the Golf World Cup and has four times been part of the European Ryder Cup team.

He turned professional in 2002 and, in the same year, won the Volvo Scandinavian Masters, which at the time was only his fourth start on the European Tour.

In 2004, he finished sixth on the European Tour Order of Merit, and in 2010, he was voted RTÉ Sports Person of the Year.

 

Fred Daly

Born: 11th October 1911 (died in 1990)
Professional wins:
28
Highest world ranking: N/A

Though you won’t be old enough to remember his playing days, Fred Daly was and remains one of the greatest Irish golfers.

Best known for winning the Open Championship in 1947 at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, he became the first Irishman to claim that particular honour.

As years go, 1947 was a pretty good one for Daly. Aside from his record-setting Open Championship triumph, he also became the first Irish winner of the News of the World Match Play and the first Irishman ever to compete in the Ryder Cup.

Though he sadly passed away in 1990, aged 79, Daly remained the only Irishman to win the Open Championship until Padraig Harrington won it in 2007. He was also the only Northern-Irish golfer to win a major until Graeme McDowell’s 2010 US Open win.

If you’re ever in any doubt of Daly’s influence and legacy, there is now a blue plaque of remembrance in his birthplace of Portrush, Co. Antrim. On it, that famous win 1947 Open Championship win is rightly mentioned.

 

Rory McIlroy

Born: 4th May 1989
Professional wins: 29
Highest world ranking: 1st

Such is the fame and success of the great Rory McIlroy, even those with no interest in golf will have heard of him. In fact, he’s arguably the biggest household name on this list.

A former world number one, McIlroy has spent a total of more than 100 weeks as the world’s best golfer throughout his career since turning professional in 2007.

And even as an amateur, McIlroy was a cut above the rest. He topped the World Amateur Golf Rankings when he was just 17.

He’s a four-time major champion with wins at the 2011 US Open, 2012 PGA Championship, 2014 Open Championship, and the 2014 PGA Championship (two in one year!)

McIlroy is one of only three golfers to win four majors by the age of 25 – the other two being the legendary Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

If that wasn’t enough – he’s also played at the Ryder Cup six times and twice been voted RTÉ Sports Person of the Year in 2011 and 2016.

 

Darren Clarke

Born: 14th August 1968
Professional wins: 24
Highest world ranking: 8th

Darren Clarke plays on the PGA Tour Champions at the time of writing, having played on both the European and PGA Tours earlier in his career.

Among his 24 professional wins are 21 tournaments worldwide, including the likes of the aforementioned Tours, and the Sunshine Tour and Japan Golf Tour.

Clarke’s biggest career victory to date is the 2011 Open Championship, held at St George’s, England. Of all his career successes, this was Clarke’s first win at a major tournament after 54 attempts and more than 20 years of trying. Moral of the story: never give up.

Clarke’s golfing career has also seen him pit himself against some of the very best in the game – most notably Tiger Woods, who Clarke defeated in the final of the WGC-Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship in 2000. Not too many people can say they’ve beaten the Tiger!

He was also a member of five consecutive European Ryder Cup teams between 1997 and 2006.

 

Padraig Harrington

Born: 31st August 1971
Professional wins:
31
Highest world ranking: 3rd

Next on our list is three-time major championship winner Padraig Harrington.

Hailing from the famous city of Dublin, his home suburb of Rathfarnham is a somewhat surprising golfing hotspot – with professional golfers Peter Lawrie and Paul McGinley having also grown up nearby. The latter and Harrington also attended the same secondary school (though not in the same year).

Harrington turned professional in the mid-1990s and has recorded an impressive 31 career wins to date. During this time, he’s also spent more than 300 weeks (a cumulative total of more than five years) as one of the world’s top ten golfers between 2001 and 2010. In 2008, he reached a career-high of third place.

His first major championship breakthrough came at the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie Golf Links, Scotland, where he became the first Irishman to win the Open for 60 years (and the first-ever winner from the Republic).

Harrington followed this up a year later with another win at the 2008 Open Championship while clinching a PGA Championship that year too.

More recently, he was the European team captain for the 2021 Ryder Cup.

 

Des Smyth

Born: 12th February 1953
Professional wins:
26
Highest world ranking: 48th

When Des Smyth turned professional in 1974, he could’ve scarcely imagined the career longevity that lay ahead of him.

As a member of the European Tour for more than twenty-five years, he’s one of the most established Irish names in the sport. He’s also one of very few golfers to have won events on the European Tour across four different decades.

Despite never winning a major, he bagged wins at eight tournaments on the Tour, and in 2001 in Madeira, he set a then-record for the oldest player to ever win a European Tour event (48 years, 34 days). This record stood until 2012 when Ángel Jiménez won the UBS Hong Kong Open at 48 years, 11 months, 13 days.

During his playing career, Smyth also played in the Ryder Cup, World Cup and featured at the Alfred Dunhill Cup on several occasions. In 1988, he won the latter alongside fellow Irishmen Eamonn Darcy and Ronan Rafferty, which saw the trio scoop RTÉ Sports Person of the Year awards.

Later in his career, Smyth enjoyed a successful stint in senior golf, racking up wins on the Champions Tour and the European Senior Tour.

 

Ronan Rafferty

Born: 13th January 1964
Professional wins: 14
Highest world ranking: 16th

If there’s ever a ‘not household name but should’ve been’ list for sportspeople, there’s a good chance Ronan Rafferty will be near the top.

Although perhaps not a name all too familiar with the masses, those in-the-know regard Rafferty as one of the best golfers in Europe during the 1980s and early-‘90s. The fact he qualified for the Open Championship aged just 16 speaks for itself.

Winning an astonishing 12 official worldwide tour events between 1987 and 1993, he’s often labelled as one of the key trailblazers for professional golf in Northern Ireland. Together with David Feherty, the fierce duo were the first two Northern Irish golfers to win consistently on the European Tour, helping to pave the way for future greats like the aforementioned McIlroy, McDowell and Clarke.

Although he never managed to win a major himself, Rafferty led the 1989 European Tour Order of Merit and represented Europe at the Ryder Cup in the same year.

 

Harry Bradshaw

Born: 9th October 1913 (died in 1990)
Professional wins:
21
Highest world ranking: N/A

For our next pick, golf was certainly a family affair.

Harry Bradshaw’s father, Ned Bradshaw, was a professional golfer, and Harry’s three brothers (Jimmy, Eddie and Hughie) all became professional golfers, too.

Bradshaw won the Irish PGA Championship ten times between 1941 and 1957, and to this day, is still the joint record-holder (with Christy O’Connor Snr) for most wins in that event.

Bradshaw enjoyed solid success both in and for his home nation of Ireland, winning the Irish Open in 1947 and 1949, and winning the Canada Cup for Ireland in 1958.

He also played in three Ryder Cups and was the Dunlop Masters champion twice.

Despite having no career majors to shout about, that’s not to say he never came close – his second-place finish at the 1949 Open Championship being the closest.

And in an extraordinary turn of events – were it not for his drive at the fifth role resting against a piece of broken glass on the fairway, he may have clinched the title.

 

Christy O’Connor Snr

Born: 21st December 1924 (died in 2016)
Professional wins:
64
Highest world ranking: N/A

Keeping the history books firmly open for now, the next Irish golfer on our list is the late, great Christy O’Connor Snr.

Widely recognised as one of the leading golfers on the British and Irish circuit in the 1950s, O’Connor Snr won more than 20 key British and Irish tournaments.

He also secured a top-ten finish in the Open Championship on ten separate occasions. However, the closest he ever got to winning a major was his joint second-place finish at the 1965 Open Championship.

O’Connor Snr turned professional in 1951, and his first professional win came at the Swallow-Penfold Tournament in 1955. His prize money was a humble £1,000, which, at the time, was the first-ever £1,000 prize to be offered in British golf – how times have changed!

Testament to his legacy, he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2009.

And, as it turns out, his nephew was pretty good at golf too…

 

Christy O’Connor Jr

Born: 19th August 1948 (died in 2016)
Professional wins:
16
Highest world ranking: N/A

Nephew of Christy O’Connor Snr, the Jr suffix was added to O’Connor’s surname to distinguish between the two when the latter turned professional in 1967.

In his early days, O’Connor Jr played on the old European circuit until the European Tour was founded in 1972. In 1975, he won two tournaments and finished a respectable seventh on the European Tour Order of Merit.

O’Connor Jr’s win at the 1975 Carroll’s Irish Open made him only the second Irish golfer in history to win their national open – and the first since the 1940s.

The following year, O’Connor Jr played at his first Open Championship, opening the tournament with the co-lead with the late, great Seve Ballesteros.

However, his most memorable career moment was arguably his victory over Fred Couples at the 1989 Ryder Cup, helping Europe secure the trophy.

He was also awarded RTÉ Sports Person of the Year in the same year – not bad.

 

Eamonn Darcy

Born: 7th August 1952
Professional wins:
16
Highest world ranking: 57th

Eamonn Darcy turned professional in 1968 at the age of 16, but the start of his tournament career would coincide with the formation of the European Tour in 1972. This is where he truly made his name.

Darcy’s first win on the European Tour was at the Greater Manchester Open in 1977, where he beat a trio of British golfers by eight shots. He also finished in joint third-place at the 1988 Portuguese Open and joint sixth-place at the Dunlop Masters in 1991.

Darcy also forged regular success on the Australian Tour, winning the 1980 Air New Zealand Shell Open and the West Lakes Classic in 1981.

He finished in the top-30 of the European Tour Order of Merit eight times, but you could argue his greatest career moment came at the 1987 Ryder Cup. His win against Ben Crenshaw on the last hole secured not only a crucial 13th point for Europe (who went on to win 15-13) but also marked his only Ryder Cup win as an individual.

During his career, he became known for having one of the most distinctive swings in the game. He’d give what could be described as a mini jump as his extremely upright swing made contact with the ball. Check it out if you haven’t already.

 

David Feherty

Born: 13th August 1958
Professional wins:
10
Highest world ranking: 33rd

David Feherty spent the bulk of his playing career in Europe, winning five times and recording two top-ten finishes on the European Tour Order of Merit – placing tenth in 1989 and then eighth in 1990.

Feherty was part of the Europe team, which narrowly lost the infamous 1991 Ryder Cup on Kiawah Island, South Carolina. Three decades on, the tournament is still remembered for its over-zealous spectators, tension, gamesmanship accusations, and American-European hostility.

He then enjoyed spells on the PGA Tour in the US in the mid-‘90s, finishing in second place at the New England Classic in 1994.

Feherty’s career-best major finish was also in 1994 when he came tied-fourth at the Open Championship at Turnberry Golf Resort, Scotland.

Since retiring from playing, Feherty has worked as a golf broadcaster for various media outlets, including NBC Sports and Golf Channel. He’s also a regular contributor to Golf Magazine.

 

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