It has been 15 years since Paul McGinley played Gaelic football for his hometown team in Dublin, but McGinley, 34, still speaks reverentially about the way the sport is governed. According to Gaelic Athletic Association rules, a player may compete only for the county in which he was born, even if he has moved elsewhere. "It's a very parochial system," McGinley says. "If you're from my town or village, we'd have a very strong bond because no matter what, we'd always play on the same team."
A pro golfer since 1991, McGinley has become one of the top players in Europe and is ranked 45th in the world, but he has never had the opportunity to reprise that home-team feeling. He's likely to finally get the chance Sept. 28-30 at the Ryder Cup. Two other Irishmen, Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington, are first and third, respectively, in the European standings and have already made the team that will take on the U.S. at the Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England. If McGinley, No. 8, can remain among the top 10 through this week's BMW International Open in Munich, the final qualifying event, he will join them as a rookie on the first team since 1975 to field three Irish golfers. "The three of us have helped each other, and no doubt we've pushed each other," says Harrington. "We've also become great friends."
A late bloomer, McGinley refers to his compatriots as "the two boys," and he is indeed the oldest of the trio ( Clarke is 33, Harrington 30), all of whom played in last week's NEC Invitational at Firestone Country Club in Akron. Growing up, McGinley played golf only in the summer, devoting the rest of the year to Gaelic football, an amateur sport that combines aspects of rugby and soccer. "The big guys would look to catch the ball, and I'd pick up the scraps," says the 5'7", 160-pound McGinley, who was good enough to make the highest-level team in Dublin before a shattered left kneecap ended his football career when he was 19. Devastated, he enrolled in a marketing program at Dublin's Trinity College and prepared for a life in business.
After graduating in 1989, McGinley took an internship at the European Economic Community in Brussels, where he befriended a California man who put him in touch with Gordon Severson, the golf coach at U.S. International in San Diego. McGinley was a scratch player by then, and Severson invited him to walk on. McGinley accepted and, after taking a �5,000 loan, flew to San Diego that summer.
Save for his six-month hitch in Brussels, San Diego was McGinley's first foray outside of Ireland. Think Frank McCourt in spikes. "When he came off the plane, he was wearing a green blazer with an Irish logo on it," says Severson. "I didn't know he was such a little fellow." McGinley's teammates delighted in his naivet�. When, on his first road trip, McGinley asked them how to eat pancakes, they told him to roll up the pancakes and eat them like a burrito. McGinley wound up with a lap full of syrup.
His game was a mess, too. McGinley was short—"He couldn't hit it out of his shadow," Severson says—and worked the ball too much, a habit formed on his home course in Ireland, which was full of sharp doglegs. McGinley improved dramatically, winning several college tournaments and making Europe's Walker Cup team in '91. He earned his European tour card that fall but over the next four seasons had only six top 10 finishes. "I was lucky to turn pro at such a late age  because I could handle the ups and downs," he says. "If I were younger, I might have fallen off the tour straight away."
McGinley's breakout year came in 1996, when he won for the first time, in Austria, and finished 15th on the money list. Over the last two years he has become a weight-room junkie. McGinley proudly notes that his three best performances of 2001—a victory early last month at the Wales Open, a tie for third at the Scottish Open and a 22nd at the recent PGA Championship—were all on long courses. He was 26th at Firestone. "I'm just getting to know my game," he says. "I've improved a lot, but by no means am I the finished article."
Harrington, who also grew up in Dublin, is a work in progress, too, though he has enjoyed a much steeper ascent in the golf firmament. When Harrington was 18, he figured his best avenue into pro golf was as a financial manager, so he began studying toward an accounting degree at Dublin Business School. However, as a golfer he soon defied his own expectations and at 19 was named to the Walker Cup team, the first of three he has played on. In 1995, at 24, Harrington won the Irish Close Championship—the Gaelic equivalent of the U.S. Amateur—and turned pro. He could have made that move earlier but decided to take his time after watching McGinley. "I felt that Paul's maturity helped him make a smooth transition to the pro game," Harrington says. "It's a lot easier to do that at 24 than at 20."
Now in his sixth year on the European tour, Harrington has been consistent but plagued by a Mickelsonian tendency to fritter away opportunities to win. Harrington, 17th in the NEC, has 14 seconds and only three victories over his career. After taking a five-stroke lead through three rounds of last year's Benson and Hedges International Open at the Belfry, he was famously disqualified when officials discovered that he had forgotten to sign his first-round scorecard. Still, Harrington has finished in the top 10 in earnings three times and was the revelation of the European team at the '99 Ryder Cup, where his 1-1-1 record included a one-up victory over Mark O'Meara, one of only three wins for the Euros on Black Sunday.
Despite his success and lofty position (15th) in the World Ranking, Harrington has undertaken a massive retooling of his swing over the last three years under the tutelage of Bob Torrance, whose son, Sam, is the European Ryder Cup captain. "Tee to green, I'm easily as good as I've ever been," Harrington says. "Unfortunately, because I've spent so much time on my swing, my short game has suffered."