Matt Cooper

Across the Pond

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Irish Open Preview

Monday, July 3, 2017


The renaissance of the Ireland’s national Open continues apace with its inclusion in the European Tour’s lucrative Rolex Series and a significant positioning in the schedule.
 
As the first of three weeks of links golf the tournament makes for magnificent preparation for the Open Championship and has duly drawn an impressive field.
 
It may also be the moment for Rory McIlroy’s season to finally take off. With massive crowds expected, if he could replicate the stunning golf with which he won this tournament 12 months ago, there’s every chance that a season blighted by injury and stubbornly second gear form could be ignited in time for a genuine crack at a fifth major win.
 
If he were to win the tournament for a second time he would join an illustrious list of multiple winners. Indeed, the names who have achieved that feat are mostly the legends of European golf: Mark James, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam, Nick Faldo, Sam Torrance and Colin Montgomerie.
 
Five of those seven successfully defended the title and this week McIlroy will seek to emulate them.
 
 
Last ten winners of the Irish Open
2016 – Rory McIlroy (Northern Ireland) – The K Club
2015 – Soren Kjeldsen (Denmark) – Royal County Down
2014 – Mikko Ilonen (Finland) – Fota Island
2013 – Paul Casey (England) – Carton House
2012 – Jamie Donaldson (Wales) – Royal Portrush
2011 – Simon Dyson (England) – Killarney
2010 – Ross Fisher (England) – Killarney
2009 – Shane Lowry (Ireland) – County Louth
2008 – Richard Finch (England) – Adare
2007 – Padraig Harrington (Ireland) – Adare
 
Notes: Notice anything? Eight of the last ten winners were from Great Britain and Ireland with the exceptions from Scandinavia (i.e. all of them from northern Europe). It’s a run that stretches back to 2005 given that Stephen Dodd and Thomas Bjorn are the 11th and 12th last winners. It’s intriguing that the trend continues regardless of whether the tournament is played on links or parkland tracks.
 
 
The course
 
Be prepared for spectacular scenery as, for the first time in the tournament’s history, it heads to the stunning Portstewart GC in Northern Ireland, a course that sits on a wonderful stretch of linksland that includes nearby Royal Portrush. The latter course hosted the Irish Open in 2012 and although there are differences between the two, there are also similarities: high dunes, undulating land, perched on the coast, and a layout that truly tests the ability to play in wind, given that holes travel in all directions (rather than out and in). The front nine is played through very high sandhills, effectively tiny valleys, then the back nine opens up, with many greens raised and buffeted by the gusts which whips in off the sea. Don’t overlook form at Royal County Down (the 2015 Irish Open) either – again, different tracks, but plenty of shared qualities.
 
 
The weather
As things stand (on Monday morning) the wind ought not to be ferocious, with constant breezes expected all week and gusts of nothing more than 25mph. But there is plenty of rain forecast, ranging from showers to heavy downpours. There should be plenty of sun in-between times, but it could be a week of the rain gear being repeatedly pulled on and off.
 
 
The Leading Contenders
 
Finally claimed his home Open last year, at the tenth attempt, after a run of three missed cuts. The victory 12 months ago came courtesy of two fairway wood approaches to par-5 greens which had everyone purring. It was a sensational performance. A links test this week and so the questions always arise: can he play it in wind? Last year’s Open at Royal Troon, when he got the wrong end of the draw, says yes. Needs a win soon and needs to find a putter that stays in the bag longer than a couple of rounds.
 
After the stunning golf which saw him lift five trophies around the end of 2016 and start of 2017 there was a, perhaps inevitable, drift. However inevitable it was, it was also inconvenient, given it came at the start of the summer. But his T2 at Erin Hills in the U.S. Open suggests he’s back. It was curious week: concluding rounds of 65-71-66 flawed by an opening 74. 3-for-4 at The Open, with a best of T6 in 2013 at Muirfield.
 
The big Spaniard gave up his free shot at The Open last year (earned via his 2015 world number one amateur ranking), but reclaimed it with a stunning pro debut at the QL National. He then made the cut at Royal Troon to finished T59. Since then, of course, he has blazed away and there seems little reason not to think he has the game to succeed anywhere. There will be focus on his links skills this week however. Will he emulate Ballesteros and Garcia as links stylists? Solid T10 last week at Le Golf National, where many thought he might struggle.
 
Ever since he introduced himself to the world with T4 in the 1998 Open as a raw teenager it’s assumed he’s an excellent links players and yet that result remains his Open Championship best, despite 14 subsequent appearances. Indeed there is only one other top ten (T6 in 2015). Victory in the 2014 Scottish Open at Royal Aberdeen proves that he can play by the sea and he’ll be keen to hone his game ahead of a return to the scene of that 1998 cameo, Royal Birkdale. T12 at Wentworth, only seen at the U.S. Open since, when he missed the cut.
 
His season has become a bit stop-start. He was superb in finishing T4 at the Masters, then missed the weekend next time out. Briefly led the BMW PGA Championship, fell back at the weekend, then missed the cut at the U.S. Open. Last week he was T3 with 18 holes to play, drifted to T13. So there’s good golf there, but bad too. His only links experience in Ireland saw him shoot 78-79 at Royal County Down but was T30 in The Open at Royal Troon.
 
Last year’s links form was supreme: T2 in the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart, T5 in The Open at Royal Troon, winner of the Alfred Dunhill Championship. Began the year in fine fettle but it has stalled in recent weeks, with missed weekends at the U.S. Open and last Friday in the Open de France. Can he bounce back when he sees the golfing land he clearly loves playing on?
 
If we look at nothing more than the performances of the players on Northern Irish links courses in recent Irish Open history no-one in the field tops the Spaniard. He was T2 at Royal Portrush in 2012 and T4, one shot out the play-off, at Royal County Down in 2015. In all he has six finishes of T26 or better in 9 Irish Open starts. T26 last time out in the BMW International Open.
 
On fire in 2017 with nine finishes of T12 or better in 17 starts, including career-best efforts in the WGC and majors, plus two victories at the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship and last week’s wonderful Open de France triumph. A three-time top five finisher in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, primed to play The Open in his home town, what’s not to like? Maybe his tournament record? He’s 1-for-5 with a MC at Royal Portrush and T21 at Royal County Down.
 
Started the week with an appeal on Twitter for the airline he traveled with from Paris to find his clubs, so maybe keep an eye on that one. Otherwise his T8 in this tournament at Royal County Down reads well, although he has struggled on Scottish links. In strokeplay there he is 2-for-7 with a best of T44 in the 2013 Open as an amateur. Shot 76-73 to miss the cut in Paris.
 
If the wet weather arrives and squalls with it, then Lowry might well thrive since it was in this tournament, in exactly those conditions at County Louth, that he announced himself to the world, with a stunning victory as an amateur. Surprisingly failed to make the top 40 at either Royal Portrush or Royal County Down, despite making the weekend both times. Could only manage 74-77 last week in France.
 

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