A WORLD-CLASS field gathers at Ballyliffin Golf Clubwhich will host the Irish Open for the first time. It is the latest in the Rolex Series, with another giant prize fund and more Ryder Cup points up for grabs as Thomas Bjorn’s European team begins to take shape.
The tournament is hosted by the Rory Foundation and Rory McIlroy will hope for a repeat of 2016 when, despite everything that came with being the event host, he went on to win in front of a hugely passionate gallery at the K Club. This is a very different venue – it is a brute that measures 7,462 yards and it is also a links.
Despite learning to play the game on links courses, McIlroy would be the first to admit that he is not a huge fan of this form of golf. He has a high ball flight, which is why the K Club suited him so perfectly, and struggles when the wind blows, so he will be going into this week praying for wall to wall sunshine and flat calm conditions. He will point to the fact that he has a Claret Jug on his CV but his victory at Hoylake came in untypical links weather. This could be a very different week for the Ulsterman.
He has had a strange season, winning in America and producing several near-misses on the European Tour. When he has been good he has been brilliant, but McIlroy measures his career in majors and he will want to find some form ahead of this year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie, a course that really should not suit his game.
He will surely be inspired by a passionate Irish gallery, who will be willing him to win in style.
There will also be plenty of support for Paul Dunne, the Irishman who won the British Masters in such sensational style last year, beating a charging McIlroy into second place. Dunne is, of course, in a totally different place in his career and says that the regards the Irish Open as being as important as the majors.
The Wicklow player burst onto the global golf scene in 2015 when he shared the lead heading into the final round of The Open at St Andrews, and he has the game to become a global superstar.
Should he win in County Donegal, Dunne would join an illustrious list of home winners. McIlroy became the eighth Irishman to claim the title when he won in 2016, while Shane Lowry’s emotional triumph as a young amateur in 2009 remains one of the most memorable in the tournament’s history.
Two years earlier, Padraig Harrington had bridged a 25-year gap when he emerged victorious from a sudden-death play-off before his famous victory in the 2007 Open at Carnoustie.
Dunne is determined to put his name alongside some of the greats of Irish golf. “The Irish Open is the tournament we look forward to the most,” said Dunne. “To win it would be right up there with the four majors for me personally. Ballyliffin will be a great test of a venue this year. It’s always good to play in front of the home crowd and the support is always incredible. They always keep you in it and they provide a nice buzz.
“It’s going to be another great week and hopefully the weather holds up nicely. If I can give myself chances over the next few years to win it I would be delighted. Hopefully this year gives me one of those chances, but we’ll see.”
Last year’s tournament was won by the incomparable young Spaniard Jon Rahm, who endured a miserable time at the US Open and will be looking to bounce back with another Rolex Series victory. He has a remarkable record in Europe – last year he won the Irish Open and the Dubai World Championship and also finished 10th at the French Open, and he has already added the Open de Espana in 2018 and the Career Builder Challenge in January to add to the Farmers Insurance title he won in 2017.
Rahm took the Irish Open by the scruff of the neck 12 months agowinning by six shots from Richie Ramsay and Mathew Southgate and producing a glorious display of shotmaking along the way, including a holed second shot for an eagle. The European Tour caused something of a stir last season when they named him rookie of the year after his two victories, even though he had only played in four regular tour events. But there is no denying that he had an incredible 2017.
He finished the regular season on the PGA Tour in sixth place in the FedEx Cup rankings. He had top-10 finishes in all four of the FedEx Cup Playoff events and finshed fifth in the final standings. Rahm will surely win a major soon – with everything that he has achieved to date, it is difficult to believe that he is still only 23 years old. He plays with maturity beyond his years, or at least he does until things start to go wrong. The Spaniard wears his heart on his sleeve. It is difficult to believe that barely five years ago he could hardly speak a word of English. He is now fluent – and even curses in English. Many pundits believe that he would be a better player still if he could learn to keep a lid of his temper, but he wouldn’t be the same player if that happened. And it is impossible to argue with his achievements. He will be a key member of Europe’s Ryder Cup team.
Thomas Pieters and Alexander Levy are two others with an eye on the Ryder Cup. The Belgian believes his best form is not far away. “I feel like my game is in good shape at the moment and I’m really looking forward to this run of Rolex Series events,” said Pieters. “The Irish Open is always a great tournament with incredible support so hopefully I can perform and it can provide the platform for a big summer.”
“I am looking forward to playing Ballyliffin,” said Levy. “I have heard good things about the course and I am keen to improve my record at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open. It is an important summer and the Rolex Series events are huge for us, so it should be a fun week.”
The Irish Open was won in 2011 by Simon Dyson, in 2012 by Jamie Donaldson, in 2013 by Paul Casey, in 2014 by Mikko Ilonen, in 2015 by Soren Kjeldsen, in 2016 by McIlroy and last year by Rahm.
To Win: Jon Rahm. Class act
Each Way: Matthew Fitzpatrick. Desperate to play in the Ryder Cup again
Each Way: Rory McIlroy. You can never rule him out
Jon Rahm. Don’t be surprised if he makes a successful title defence
Rory McIlroy. Huge crowd favourite
Matt Fitzpatrick. The tougher the course, the more he likes it
Shane Lowry. Will be lifted by home support
Matt Wallace. Seriously good player
Andrew Johnston. Looking for a big week
Chris Wood. Back to form
Graeme McDowell. Showed flashes of his best in France
Rafa Cabrera Bello. One of Europe’s most consistent performers
Kiradech Aphibarnrat. Hugely underrated
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