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“Did you buy those clubs in a yard sale, man? Wow, they’re old…” That was how the world number five ranked golfer Jon Rahm greeted me (and my elderly set of Taylor Mades) today at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Pro-Am in Ballyliffin, County Donegal.
An insult from one of the world’s greats to an ordinary hacker? Far from it. This was a brilliantly capricious welcome from an engaging, fun sports star as a lead-in to what turned out to be one of the most memorable days I’ve had on the course.
The sparkling sunshine on the north coast of Donegal – days like this are as rare here as a Jon Rahm bogey (he is defending champion) – made the day special of course, with the backdrop of the Atlantic making for a stunning scene.
People in this remote part of Ireland are starved of top-class sporting action so when one comes along, they come in their thousands. Jon Rahm himself told us that the size of the golf crowds at Irish venues, notably on Pro-Am day (before the tournament begins) is something the pros see almost nowhere else.
Jon’s opening line kicked off four hours of banter and superb craic with me, my dutiful caddie David Spillane (the GTR Sales man was back on the bag for the third year) and fellow team members Damien Fox and Brian King (thanks to Colm McLoughlin, Sinead el Sibai and team for lining up this terrific four-ball).
What surprised us about this giant of a golfer – he hits the ball a mile – was how refreshingly candid he was. In this era of guarded, media-trained sports stars, here was a guy who happily chatted away about relationships, life on the road, US golf crowds, Phil Mickelson and his US Open putting controversy, and much, much more, without a PR manager in sight.
He’s box office too. I lost count of how many autograph hunters he politely said no too, promising to sigh every ball or card after the 18th. He was as good as his word too: well after we had left the arena, Jon was there, talking pictures with young kids and making people’s days that bit better.
Who said box office? And who said The Moodie Davitt Report was just on golf TV? Sky Sports, no doubt mistaking me for some kind of serious golfer rather than cutting me out of the frame, carried footage of Jon and I walking the course as part of their highlights package. And was even spotted by my brother-in-law who was watching the action in Pittsburgh, USA. Global reach? You bet…
Jon Rahm made our day better in one other way too: we won the morning Pro-Am session. Our score of -30 pipped Graeme McDowell’s team on countback. I will admit that the result was delivered in much larger part by Jon and my fellow players than by me – apart from contributing a few birdies I splayed some wayward drives left and right, on one occasion hitting some poor young lad right on the backside (fortunately he seemed happy enough to take my ball as compensation).
That all means that tonight will be one of celebration at Ballyliffin Lodge, where by coincidence Jon Rahm is staying too. He says he’s getting an early night as he seeks to defend his crown as Dubai Duty Free Irish Open champion from Thursday morning. But once we fill the stunning Waterford Crystal prize vases to the brim with the local brew, we may just be able to persuade him to take a sip.
We’ll be cheering for Jon Rahm in the days ahead; and watching on as the brilliant Dubai Duty Free marketing for this event is beamed into homes around the world.