Royal County Down is one of those revered, bucket-list courses that always appears in top 10 lists.
And this week we get to see the magical links in all its glory as it hosts the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Hosted by the Rory Foundation or DDFIOHBYRF for not very short. To be honest, let’s not go with that acronym.
Thanks to Rory’s recruiting skills, the tournament will welcome some top stars including Rickie Fowler, Martin Kaymer, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood. The passion for golf in this part of the world meant the event was already a complete sell-out for Friday, Saturday and Sunday a week in advance. Over 80,000 fans are expected through the gates.
The Irish Open dates back to 1927 but Northern Ireland has staged the event just 10 times. Forget tournament course form at Royal County Down as it’s only been host three times and the last was in 1939.
The trophy is decorated with the names of legends and four players have won it three times – Seve Ballesteros (1983, 1985, 1986), Bernhard Langer (1984, 1987, 1994), Nick Faldo (1991, 1992, 1993) and Colin Montgomerie (1996, 1997, 2001).
The only Northern Irish winner was Fred Daly in 1946 so Rory will be hoping he can chalk up another for the north. Daly later became the first Irish player to win the Open Championship when he triumphed at Hoylake in 1947. That was where Rory lifted the Claret Jug last year, of course, so a McIlroy win would provide some nice symmetry.
Last 10 Irish Open Winners, Venue And Score
2014 Mikko Ilonen (Fota Island Resort) -13
2013 Paul Casey (Carton House) -14
2012 Jamie Donaldson (Royal Portrush) -18
2011 Simon Dyson (Killarney) -15
2010 Ross Fisher (Killarney) -18
2009 Shane Lowry (Co Louth) -17
2008 Richard Finch (Adare Manor) -10
2007 Padraig Harrington (Adare Manor) -5
2006 Thomas Bjorn (Carton House) -5
2005 Stephen Dodd (Carton House) -9
The above list comprises four Englishmen, two Irishmen, two Welshman, a Dane and a Finn. Or, another way of looking at it, all 10 winners were from Northern Europe.
For what it’s worth, all three winners at County Down (1928, 1935, 1939) were English.
The Course – Royal County Down
Often ranked as the world’s greatest course outside of the United States, Royal County Down is one of the most beautiful venues in the world with the Mountains of Mourne providing a stunning backdrop. Although it’s never staged a major, the fabled links has held many big events including the 2007 Walker Cup when McIlroy and Fowler battled it out against each other (Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson and and Billy Horschel were on the US team that won 12.5-11.5). Nicklaus, Palmer and Player also locked horns here in a Senior Open. The greens are flat and well protected while gorse and heather are waiting to snare loose drives. The bunkers can produce funky lies. It’s a 35-36=71 measuring 7,186 yards. Royal County Down closes with a par 5 but it generally plays as one of the toughest holes on the course as it’s surrounded by trouble.
In an article by Irish journalist Brian Keogh last month, he revealed that Ronan Rafferty had walked the course with a young McIlroy at that 2007 Walker Cup and recommended that he and his team took a conservative approach, playing to the front of the greens. Tiger came here and tried to take it on. He shot in the 80s on his first lap. Woods adjusted his strategy and went round in 74 and then completed the learning process by carding an unofficial 64 on a later visit. Loose shots can be severely punished, leaving the option of just chipping back into play. Head pro Kevan Whitson gives this quote in Keogh’s article, “There is a high risk-reward tariff here, so if you take on the pins and try to get up to the pins, the penalty for a missed green at the back or the sides is so much more severe than a missed green short. The course is bating you and saying, ‘If you want to get around me safely around par, play to the front of the greens and I will give you a par score. If you want to take me on, you may do it, but there is a double bogey lurking just around the corner.”
Who It Suits
Whitson gives this opinion, “Guys who are pretty steady and won’t be flapped by the golf course that is going to throw up strange lies in bunkers and trouble not too far from their target. Somebody who is pretty accurate, not long necessarily. A player with a patient demeanour.”
As you might expect, wind will be a factor and the forecast is for it to blow between 17mph and 20mph all week. Rain is in the forecast on Friday, Saturday and Sunday so players will get an authentic Royal County Down experience.
The Leading Contenders
Missing the cut at Wentworth was probably a blessing in disguise as the world No.1 will have plenty of off-course demands this week and needs to be fresh. He’s played many a social round at Royal County Down although he managed just 1.5pts from four matches here in the 2007 Walker Cup. Rory reckons his poor Irish Open record is due to “trying too hard” in front of his home Irish fans so will try and adopt a more relaxed approach this year. That record shows missed cuts in each of the last two years and just two top 10s (T10 Royal Portrush 2012, T7 Adare Manor 2008) in eight starts . Given the quotes of the head pro, he could be in for a difficult week but if the four-time Open champ is ‘on’, Rory could blast the field away.
Fowler won 3pts out of 4 in the 2007 Walker Cup at Royal County Down and already has plenty of affection for this course. In fact, he does for many venues in GB & Ireland having finished fifth in the 2011 Open, runner-up to Rory at Hoylake last year and also T8 in the 2014 Scottish Open. After his brilliant win in THE PLAYERS, Fowler should be oozing confidence and will be a genuine title threat. He can’t be picked for the European Tour Fantasy game but bettors should give him serious consideration as Fowler loves playing in the wind.
Sergio should be fresh after skipping the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. Prior to that he was a slightly disappointing T22 in his home Open de Espana but that came on the back of a play-off loss at THE PLAYERS where he appeared to have one hand on the trophy for a while on Sunday. This is his first appearance in the Irish Open since 2000 but he has some strong memories of this event as his victory at Druids Glen in 1999 (achieved with a closing 64) gave him the first of his 11 European Tour wins. The Spaniard was also T10 at Ballybunion in 2000. He’s suited by any windy links course so is definitely one for the shortlist.
Molinari left Wentworth with a fourth straight top 10 under his belt in the BMW PGA Championship but his T5 represented a disappointment too given that he led after 18 and 36 holes and was tied after 54. The Italian hit 81.9% of greens in regulation last week and was runner-up in Spain prior to that and he looks the type who should enjoy the cerebral challenge of Royal County Down. Adding to his appeal is a record of three top 10s in his last six Irish Open starts. He also opened with a course-record 63 at County Louth in 2009 before being disqualified for signing a wrong scorecard in his second round.
Despite some poor form leading into Wentworth, Kaymer predicted in his press conference that it was “inevitable” that his hard work would be rewarded soon. Well, it sort of was as he finished a creditable T18 on a course where he’d never bettered T11. The German has played in just two Irish Opens. His debut came at Adare Manor in 2007 when T35 while he returned to the same course in 2008 and finished in a tie for 10th. As for other links form, he’s 6-for-7 in Open Championships with a best of T7 at St Andrews in 2010.
The Irishman famously won this event as an amateur at County Louth in 2009 and landed some clued-up punters a memorable 500/1 payout. He hasn’t hit those same heights as a pro although he did finish T5 at Carton House in 2013. The 28-year-old put in his usual strong display at Wentworth last week and that T6 finish was Lowry’s eighth top 10 in his last 16 starts in purely European Tour events. He described his short game as “on fire” last week so another big week beckons in testing weather which may put a few off but will be water off a duck's back for Lowry.
Donaldson’s Irish Open form divides neatly into two parts. On his first five attempts, he missed the cut each time. By contrast, he’s 5-for-5 since and has a win at Royal Portrush in 2012, a 10th on his last appearance at Carton House in 2013 and a couple of other top 25s. As for recent form, the Welshman was T8 at Sawgrass and T18 at Wentworth and feels he just needs to “tighten up a little bit”. If he can, Donaldson is capable of winning this event for a second time.
Westwood had to graft hard to make the cut at Wentworth (he squeezed in with a birdie-birdie finish) but made no great impression on the weekend and finished T38. True, he won the Indonesian Masters last month but in the big events either side he’s been disappointing. This is an event he likes though. Between 1996 and 2008, the Englishman had nine straight finishes of T21 or better, including a second, a third, a fifth and two sevenths. He’s not played it since T30 in 2009.
Fleetwood had a memorable week at Wentworth, especially on Saturday when he made an albatross, but there was still a tinge of disappointment when his title challenge went flat on Sunday. His T6 added to a quarter-final appearance in the WGC-Cadillac Match Play and a third in the Shenzhen International so the young Englishman is a growing force. He’s got a great record in Scotland (won 2013 Johnnie Walker Championship, T2 at 2014 Alfred Dunhill Links) but he’s missed all three Irish Open cuts. Expect that to change this year.
He’s been a staple in this column after a series of top 25s this season and everything clicked in spectacular fashion at Wentworth last week when he won the prestigious BMW PGA Championship on debut by six shots with a record score (in relation to par) of -21. An finished it off with a 65 so the 2009 U.S. Amateur champ looks to have a huge future in the pro ranks. Admittedly, he followed his one victory on last year’s Challenge Tour with a missed cut (after a week off in between) and this is his tournament debut. A T26 in last year’s Open Championship at Hoylake suggests he can cope with links golf.
The English have a strong record in this event and Willett is one to watch this week. He took a share of 10th spot at Carton House in 2013 and last year at Fota Island he shot a 63 in round three (a course record which featured a hole-in-one at the 7th) and finished T3. He didn’t have his best at Wentworth last week (T38) but the jolt of confidence he gained when third in the WGC-Cadillac Match Play Championship is bound to translate into a big performance somewhere soon.
Surprisingly, no, make that amazingly, McDowell didn’t have a top 10 in his first 12 Irish Opens. He finally ended that hugely disappointing record with a T6 at Fota Island 12 months ago and now, taking a positive view, he’s finished in the top 25 in three of his last four home Opens. He could have won last year but for poor putting on the weekend and obviously, as a Northern Irishman, has plenty of experience at Royal County Down. A few mental distractions (good ones, he says, as he brings up a young family) and technical issues are limiting him to modest finishes of late but he tends to come good in this part of the season.
The Next Rung
Miguel Angel Jimenez
Another week, another big finish, another hole-in-one, more celebratory red wine and cigars. It’s fun being Miguel Angel Jimenez. After his second places in Spain and the BMW PGA Championship, he should enjoy this challenge too as Royal County Down will suit his game and he can plot his way around. His Irish Open record isn’t stellar although he did finish between T11 and T21 on four occasions during a solid run between 1998 and 2007. He hasn’t played the event since 2009.
A T38 at Wentworth last week was a big disappointment in an event where he’s been a top three regular although he did shoot three good rounds (70-70-77-69) so wasn’t a million miles away. Surprisingly, this will be his first Irish Open start since 2004 and only Donald’s second in all. He finished in the top 25 in both (T22 and T23) but on current form it's hard to see him doing better than that.
The Scot has a T9 (Killarney 2010) and a T16 (Royal Portrush 2012) from five starts in this event and grew up playing links golf in Aberdeen. He had a great run on the European Tour – a win in Morocco followed by three top 15s – before it ended with a missed cut at Wentworth after a Friday 76. There was an explanation for that, though, as he tweeted on Sunday, “Unfortunately pulled out of US Open qualifying 2moro at Walton Heath. My foot has been painful needs rest for RCD.” That will obviously be a concern for fantasy managers.
After a superb run of form this year, the Austrian has skidded off the tracks with missed cuts at Sawgrass and Wentworth. He opened with 77s in both events and has shot 73 or higher in six of his last seven events so needs to sort out these slow starts. On the plus side, he has positive memories of the Irish Open. He’s played it just once but at Killarney in 2011 he posted 67-69-71-66 to finish fourth.
Returning to Europe after his usual struggles in America had the predicted rejuvenating effect on Jaidee, who shared second place in the BMW PGA Championship last week – his best performance at Wentworth and only second top 10 in 13 attempts. The veteran Thai is appearing in just his third Irish Open but he made the top 20 in the previous two, finishing T20 at County Louth in 2009 and T18 at Royal Portrush in 2012. He was second in scrambling and 8th in putting average last week so his short game is sharp.
You’d imagine that the patience and strategy required for Royal County Down would make it a poor fit for the fire-at-the-flags Frenchman although, to some extent, he’s starting to shake off that image as someone who needs a wide-open course to thrive. Levy has missed the cut in his only two Irish Open starts so would be a risky play for gamers this week.
The Frenchman looked set to emerge from his current funk after opening 71-69 to sit T11 at halfway in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth but he put it in reverse on the weekend and ended T63. In strokeplay, he now has just one finish (T17 in Houston) better than T60 since January. Don’t look for any help in his Irish Open record. He played the event in 2010, 2011 and 2013 and didn’t make the weekend in any of them.
Warren looked set for a big week at Wentworth before losing momentum with back-to-back double bogeys early in round two. He recovered to finish T18 though so is continuing in the right direction. The Scot is a regular at this event and has five top 30s from eight appearances. The best of those was a fourth place at County Louth in 2009.
He’s a two-time winner on the European Tour this year, the most recent at the Mauritius Open earlier this month. Some loose driving hurt Coetzee at Wentworth last week (T79) and that will be punished too at Royal County Down if he doesn’t straighten up. The South African is 0-for-2 at the Irish Open after missing the cut in 2010 and 2012.
The Argenine youngster has had three starts at the Irish Open but, despite the odd good round, hasn’t shown much (T44-T53-MC). After a T3 in China and a T6 in Spain, he was on track for another big payday in the BMW PGA Championship after a Friday 65 but faltered on the weekend and dropped away to T38. If he can stay patient, Royal County Down should suit his steady tee-to-green game.
Having finished top five in two Open Championships, Wood’s name always springs to mind when the examination paper is a links course. He’s got an excellent record in GB & Ireland and it’s no surprise to see that he has three top 10s from five starts in the Irish Open. He was 3rd at Killarney in 2010, 8th at Fota Island last year and 10th at County Louth in 2009. After a long injury break he’s approaching his best again and a fourth place at Wentworth last week was a big confidence boost. He also won a BMW there for a hole-in-one.
Lahiri has been spreading his wings of late, making his first appearances at Sawgrass (MC) and Wentworth (T55). This will also be his debut in the Irish Open. Earlier this year he recorded wins in the Malaysian Open and his home Indian Open but his putter has gone cold since.
“Out of the weekend again… Shocking ball striking,” tweeted the Spaniard after missing the cut in the BMW PGA Championship after undoing the good work of an opening 69 with a 78 in round two. It means he’s now MC-49-MC over the last three events so form is a concern. His Irish Open record is decent, though, with four top 30s in five appearances, including a top four at Carton House in 2013.
Bourdy was 8th in last year’s Irish Open at Fota Island and expresses a real liking for links golf (Muirfield is one of his favourite courses). He’s made his last six cuts on the European Tour so offers reliability and Royal County Down might just be up his street given that he hits lots of greens and likes a thoughtful test.
After a run of 4-2-2 on the European Tour, Howell lost the magic touch at Wentworth although he’s now missed his last four cuts at the BMW PGA Championship so doesn’t appear to like the Ernie Els redesign. He's been a virtual ever-present in the Irish Open since 1996. The highlights include a runner-up finish in 2005 and top 10s in 2001 and 2011. If he can set up enough opportunities, expect him to hole putts galore on these flat greens. The Englishman won the Alfred Dunhill Links late in 2013 so should relish this test.
Who’s On The Team?
I’m not as negative about Rory as I was last week but won’t be rushing to put money on him at a short price or making him a star pick for the European Tour Fantasy game.
Rickie Fowler certainly makes plenty of appeal as a bet given his PLAYERS win and the added bonus of his strong display here in the 2007 Walker Cup.
Shane Lowry definitely gets my attention and, at bigger prices, English duo Chris Wood and David Howell do too.
That trio will be in my European Tour Fantasy 10 which will be published in ‘Playing The Tips’ on Tuesday.
One To Fade
Luke Donald is struggling to put four good rounds together and doesn’t have the best record on links courses so might have to settle for a modest finish which is no use for bettors or fantasy managers.