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Northern Ireland's golf supremacy

Kevin Currie, Golf Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Northern Ireland has a population of under two million people. It has roughly the same amount of people that are in Nebraska or West Virginia.

So how can a country so small have such a stranglehold on the world of golf?

Despite its small population, the number of golf courses in Northern Ireland is greater than the number of courses in the state of Pennsylvania. In fact, the country would rank about 11th in the number of golf courses per state in the U.S.A.

The people of Northern Ireland have a greater chance to play golf than most populations across the world.

That is one reason you can explain the country's dominance in the golf world right now.

Darren Clarke's victory at the British Open on Sunday was the third major championship title for Northern Ireland in the last six majors contested.

In that span, South Africa has two majors and a German won the other one.

The United States, which is more than 170 times larger than Northern Ireland, hasn't had a major champion since Phil Mickelson won the 2010 Masters.

With the win, Clarke moved to No. 30 in the world rankings giving Northern Ireland three of the top-30 players in the world. And two more ranked inside the top 250.

The highest ranked player from the Republic of Ireland is Padraig Harrington, and would you believe he has tumbled to No. 62 in the world.

The trio of Northern Irishman all seem like the type you'd want to sit down and have a pint with. But get them on the golf course, and they would want to crush you like any other top golfer would.

It could be their laid-back personality that helps them stay calm in the face of adversity. This year's U.S. Open champ Rory McIlroy melted down on the final nine at Augusta in April, but he still met with the media afterwards and calmly answered every question, instead of finding a dark room and crying his eyes out.

On the other hand, Clarke sat in the press room at the British Open with a pint of Guinness in front of him. There's no doubt in my mind he would have rather been at a bar drinking that pint and answering the media's questions instead of sitting at that podium.

And let's not forget Graeme McDowell. If you thought his 2010 U.S. Open victory came from out of nowhere and was a fluke, think again. He claimed the winning point at the 2010 Ryder Cup and took down Tiger Woods in the final round of Woods' Chevron event last year.

All three have huge smiles that draw in fans. They come across as golfers for the people and of the people. They are not only world-class golfers, they are world-class human beings as well.

MORE HEARTBREAK FOR MICKELSON, JOHNSON

Phil Mickelson has collected four major championship titles, but has nearly twice as many second-place finishes. Dustin Johnson is still searching for that elusive first major.

They both had their chances to get into the winner's circle on Sunday.

Mickelson put together the best nine holes anyone played all week, when he went out in five-under 30 on Sunday's front nine. That spurt gave him a piece of the lead until Darren Clarke matched the left-hander's eagle on the par- five seventh.

Undaunted, Mickelson birdied the 10th to get back within one. And then it happened.

Mickelson, whose easily has one of the top short games of any golfer in the world, missed a short par putt on No. 11. It seems to happen at least once a tournament to Mickelson, but this was extremely costly.

The bogey on 11 sent him into a tailspin. Three more bogeys on the card dropped him to minus-two. Take away that blunder on 11, who knows what happens when Clarke bogeys the final two holes.

Still, the tie for second was his best finish at the British Open and his seventh runner-up in a major.

Johnson, who played in the final group with Clarke, stumbled to a pair of early bogeys and looked to be out of contention. However, he fought back with three birdies between Nos. 7 and 12 to get within two of Clarke's lead.

The 27-year-old Johnson was right there until his second shot on the 14th. He tried to lay up with an iron, but blocked the shot so far right that it went out of bounds.

That led to a double-bogey and ended Johnson's chances at claiming that first major. He also bogeyed 18 to share second with Mickelson.

Johnson has as many PGA Tour wins (4) as Mickelson has major titles, but his time will come. People see his prodigious length, but his short game is far better than most realize.

I wouldn't bet against these two being in the final pairing at the PGA Championship in August.

MINI-TIDBITS

- Other than Darren Clarke, the luckiest man on the planet on Sunday may have been his agent Chubby Chandler. Clarke was one of Chandlers first clients among golfers and that group now includes each of the last three major champions - Charl Schwartzel (Masters), Rory McIlroy (U.S. Open) and Clarke. Eat your heart out Scott Boras.

- The PGA Tour is going to enter into television negotiations soon. If I had any say in those talks, I would beg them for more ABC. Their extensive crew shined all weekend. ABC has its own deal with the British Open, as well as the Senior British and Women's British Opens. That crew needs to be on air more often.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Kevin Currie at kcurrie@sportsnetwork.com.

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