One small country goes big on talent

Editor's Note: This story was originally posted on Monday, June 13, prior to the start of the U.S. Open.

To win the U.S. Open, to even be in the U.S. Open, Graeme McDowell has often pointed to six months earlier, when he got a call to replace Tiger Woods in his own charity tournament, his unavailability due to high-profile personal woes providing McDowell a unique window of opportunity.

Had McDowell not gotten his place in the 2009 Chevron World Challenge, who knows if a dream 2010 season would have unfolded the way it did, with McDowell posting four worldwide wins and holing the crucial putt in Europe's Ryder Cup victory.

"Kind of a bizarre story," he said, noting that by getting into Woods' event and finishing second, he moved into the top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings -- which got him a spot in the Masters, and which led to a chain reaction of other positive occurrences, including his U.S. Open victory a year ago at Pebble Beach.

Perhaps even crazier: the notion of not one but two golfers from Northern Ireland taking such a prominent role in the world of golf.

McDowell, 31, defends his U.S. Open title this week at Congressional Country Club having risen to a high of No. 4 in the world and presently sitting at No. 7, with countryman Rory McIlroy a spot in front at No. 6.

It isn't a stretch to think that both could have been teeing off this week as major champions, with McIlroy having held the 54-hole lead at the Masters in April before a back-nine implosion ruined his chances.

Given their prominence, it is easy to lose sight of the fact McDowell and McIlroy hail from a tiny speck on the globe.

"They have five tour players and they've only got about 15 people in the country," joked Andrew "Chubby" Chandler, McIlroy's agent. "There's not many. … Northern Ireland is such a small place, but they are so passionate."

Actually, there are about 1.7 million people who call Northern Ireland home, with only about 100 golf courses.

"It would be like having two great golfers from Alaska," said Bill Elliott, a writer for Britain's Golf Monthly.

"It's very difficult to get your head around something like that," said McDowell, who is from the town of Portrush but came to the United States to play college golf at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

"Geographically, you can drive from the north to south of Northern Ireland in an hour and a half and from east to west in two hours. It's an incredibly small country," he said.

"We're blessed with some great golf courses, though, and some clubs that really embrace junior golf. Rory McIlroy is an extremely talented young man and has been for many years. I wasn't blessed with that kind of talent, but worked my butt off to get here. … It makes our small country very proud."

McDowell, however, is then quick to mention Ireland as well, and that's where things get tricky from a political standpoint.

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom along with England, Scotland and Wales. McDowell and McIlroy have British pounds in their wallets and pay their taxes to the Queen.

Ireland has its own government and currency. Padraig Harrington, the three-time major champion from Dublin, carries euros.

But in a sporting sense, a golfing sense, the two countries are one. They celebrate each other's success. In the World Cup of Golf, for example, they form one team, meaning that McIlroy could play with Harrington; or Darren Clarke, who is from Northern Ireland, might team up with Paul McGinley, who is from Ireland.

"It is confusing," Elliott admitted.

And to make matters more so -- when it comes to the Olympics, Northern Ireland competes as part of the United Kingdom, with Ireland fielding a separate team. So when golf returns to the Games in 2016, McIlroy could conceivably be playing for Great Britain while McDowell could play for Ireland.

"It'll be up to them. They'll have a choice," Harrington said. "They can't [win] really. There is no doubt about it, they'll have an extraordinarily tough job of trying to stay on the fence all the time."

Politics aside, Harrington said he takes the bigger view when it comes to the success of Irish golf. Although he has dropped to 51st in the world, along with Northern Ireland's Clarke there are now four from all of Ireland in the top 100.

"We have a great structure of competition," Harrington said. "Players have to get it done in all sorts of conditions. You have to learn how to play golf. Not so much how to swing the golf club, although there is that, too. But guys have to learn how to go play. You've got to be competitive and we've got a lot of good competition in Ireland. A lot of the European nations are now sending their teams to Ireland to compete in events because they realize this is now the place to go play if you want to get the job done."

"For such a small part of the world, it has produced a lot of great players quite regularly," McDowell said. "To have myself and Rory that high up in the world rankings, it's pretty improbable, mathematically speaking."

McDowell and McIlroy have done it in different ways. McDowell headed off to college in the States and now has a home in Orlando. McIlroy turned pro as a teenager and although he played the PGA Tour last year, opted to give up his membership in 2011. He still lives in a Northern Ireland town called Holywood, a suburb of Belfast.

He enters the U.S. Open looking to rebound from a final-round 80 at the Masters, where he led by four shots through 54 holes but ended up finishing 10 strokes back.

It was a cruel setback, worse than the 80 he shot at St. Andrews in a gale last summer after carding an opening-round 63. But McIlroy bounced back to tie for third, and tied for third at the PGA Championship.

That means at age 22 he's already been in the mix for a victory at three majors.

"It was a huge learning process for me, and I feel as if I learned from it and feel as if I've become a better player for it," McIlroy said.

McDowell is struggling at the moment, having shot well over par in recent weeks while in contention with a 79 at the Players Championship and an 81 at the Wales Open. The aftermath of his U.S. Open victory led to some great perks and a worldwide run of excellence that he is now trying to regain.

Meanwhile, he has helped bring a focus to a part of the world that very much embraces golf.

"Golf in Ireland, in general, is great," he said. "The sport really sort of bridges the gap, the border that sort of exists in Northern Ireland and the south of Ireland. A lot of the politics and the religion and all that stuff, the game of golf and sport in general really helps bridge that gap."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.