The European Tour returns to European soil this week for the 61st edition of the Irish Open. Rory McIlroy heads the stellar line-up so get the lowdown on the K Club cracker here with Steve's in-depth preview...
“Rory McIlroy arrived at the Royal County Down club 12 months full of hope. He declared that the course was his favourite but it didn’t help at all and for the second year in-a-row, he missed the cut at the Irish Open. Surely he’ll fare better this time around? For the Irish public’s sake I hope he does but he looks well worth taking on to me.”
The Irish Open has had a bit of a chequered past. There have been spells when the event wasn't played at all and there were even a few years in the 1970s when it was known as the Carroll's International but it's been an ever-present on the European Tour since 1974.
For the second year running, Rory McIlroy hosts the event with his charitable foundation and the field is strong again. The Irish Open is a nomadic event and this year we're off to the K Club in County Kildare for what is the 61st edition.
The Palmer Ryder Cup Course, the K Club, County Kildare, Ireland.
Par 72, 7350 yards
Designed in 1991, the Palmer Ryder Cup Course is a parkland course with water in play on 15 holes. The fairways are poa annua/ryegrass and the greens poa annua.
It's 10 years since the course hosted the Ryder Cup and prior to that is was the venue for the European Open between 1995 and 2003 and then again in 2005 but we can expect a bit of a different test than that faced 10 years ago. This is what greens superintendent Gerry Byrne told the Irish Independent last week.
"There is 10 years of additional growth on trees which were planted in the mid-1990s. They're now fully mature and will determine the degree of difficulty for shots hit off-line. The rough itself is not especially penal. In fact, we're cutting it at around 85 millimetres, which is slightly lower than normal. And the fairways are quite generous, while the greens will be running at around 11.5 on the Stimpmeter.
He went on to say. "I would rate the current condition of the course at nine out of 10. This is due largely to the rain and heat we got last week, which was a really welcome change from what had been an extended cold snap. In fact, I couldn't be happier."
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 12:30 on Thursday.
Last Five Winners
2015 - Soren Kjeldsen -2 (playoff)
2014 - Mikko Ilonen -13
2013 - Paul Casey -14
2012 - Jamie Donaldson - 18
2012 - Simon Dyson - 15
What Will it Take to Win The Irish Open?
The last two editions of the European Open held here were won by Brits that topped the Greens in Regulation stats, so accurate iron play looks an important skillset. Here's a list of the last five European Open winners at the course with their rankings in all the main stats.
2005 Kennie Ferrie-3 (DD: 50, DA: 10, GIR: 1, PPR 72)
2003 Philip Price -16 (DD: 82, DA: 85, GIR: 1, PPR 21)
2002 Michael Campbell -6 (DD: 49, DA: 66, GIR: 18, PPR 17)
2001 Darren Clarke -15 (DD: 37, DA: 47, GIR: 17, PPR 6)
2000 Lee Westwood -12 (DD: 23, DA: 35, GIR: 68, PPR 3)
DD = Driving Distance
DA = Driving Accuracy
GIR = Greens In Regulation
PPR = Putts Per Round
Lee Westwood's GIR ranking when winning in 2000 was poor but the player he edged out by a stroke - Angel Cabrera - ranked first for greens hit and I'd definitely consider that the most important stat to consider. It appears that neither length nor accuracy from the tee has been especially vital before but with the trees filling out since 2006, Driving Accuracy may be of more importance now, and a good week with the putter is always a plus.
Kenny Ferrie didn't putt brilliantly in 2005 but it was a war of attrition that year and the secret to his success was his iron play. Incredibly, he hit more than 80% of the greens in what at times were appalling conditions and that was 10% more than anyone else.
With much wind and rain forecast, we could get another grind of an event and I suspect keeping mistakes to a minimum will be key. Look to neat and tidy players who can keep their ball in play and their patience in check.
Is There an Angle In?
As already alluded to, an ability to handle wet and windy conditions will be vital this week and I suspect we might see one or two experienced old pros figuring.
I know it's really early and that things could change considerably before now and Thursday but an early start on day one looks like it might be quite advantageous. Not only will the course be in tip-top condition in the morning but the wind is forecast to rise as the day goes on.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Winning your national open creates its own unique pressures. It's no easy task to win in front of your own adoring fans and the Irish have a disappointing record in this. Only two Irishmen - Shane Lowry and Padraig Harrington - have won the event in the last 33 years and the only other two to win since it became a European Tour event are the late, Christy O'Connor Jnr (1975), and John O'Leary (1982).
The English have won four of the last eight renewals and following Soren Kjeldsen's play-off victory at Royal County Down last year, a Dane has taken the title three times in the last 14 years.
Multiple winners and defending champions are fairly common. Mark James (1979-80), Seve Ballesteros (1985-86), Ian Woosnam (1988-89), Nick Faldo (1991-92-93) and Monty (1996-97) have all won consecutive renewals so there's hope for Kjeldsen even though this course is very different to last year's venue.
If the old European Open results are anything to go by, a slow start can be overcome at this venue. Bernard Langer trailed by seven strokes and was languishing in a tie for 60th after round one when he won in 1995 and he was still six adrift at halfway.
A year later, Per-Ulrik Johansson trailed by six after round one and by four after round two and Ferrie eclipsed them both in 2005. The Englishman sat nine off the lead and tied for 72nd after round one, tied 34th and six back after round two and he was seven back and tied for sixth with a round to go!
Ferrie's success was largely down to two factors - his incredibly strong GIR figures for the week and a quite unbelievable and sad collapse by Thomas Bjorn. The Great Dane had begun the final round four clear but after a poor final round, his chances were obliterated completely on the tough par four 17th when he found the River Liffey three times off the tee and went on to record an 11!
I wouldn't rely too heavily on such historic data and waiting to see the averages after round this year might make sense but in 2005, despite there being three par fives on the back-nine, the second half of the course played almost two strokes harder than the front-nine but the whole course played tough. Only the par five fourth and the par five finishing hole averaged below par.
Rory McIlroy arrived at the Royal County Down club 12 months full of hope. He declared that the course was his favourite but it didn't help at all and for the second year in-a-row, he missed the cut at the Irish Open. Surely he'll fare better this time around? For the Irish public's sake I hope he does but he looks well worth taking on to me.
The record of the Irish sets the alarm bells off, Rory's putting is a worry, the bad weather's a concern, his hectic schedule as host won't help, his lack of course experience is a hindrance and the pressure he has to overcome is immense. Rory was matched at just 1.081/12 to make the cut and around evens to finish inside the top five last year and taking him on in those markets this time around may well pay dividends. I couldn't dream of backing him to win at just a shade over 4/1 and he looks well worth taking on.
US Masters champ, Danny Willett, is the clear second favourite and he commands respect despite his missed cut at the Players Championship on his return to action last week. He won't mind the conditions, the English have a fine record in the event, and he'll be happy to be closer to home this week.
Willett became the first Englishman to win the Masters since three time winner, Nick Faldo and it's interesting to look back at what Faldo did after he won at Augusta for the first time back in 1989... he won the PGA Championship at Wentworth the following month and a month after that he won the British Masters at Woburn. Could Willett emulate Faldo and win soon after triumphing at Augusta close to home and in an event Faldo enjoyed? He's a bit shorter than I'd have liked but I can see him contending.
The 2009 champ, Shane Lowry, is next up and he makes no appeal at around the 20/1 mark. He started well in Florida last week before losing his way at halfway to finish 16th but that was his best effort since January.
There's not much to choose between Scotland's Russell Knox, who has just one win to his name, Ireland's Graeme McDowell and two-time course winner, Lee Westwood but all three look short enough to me and I'm more than happy to leave all the market leaders out of my plans.
I don't really know what to expect in-running here so it may be an event that I don't get too involved in until late on. I can see all sorts of drama on Sunday but with a slow start not necessarily a huge hindrance, and with the market leaders not making any appeal, I'm happy to take a chance on five outsiders and take it from there. And first up is Denmark's Thorbjorn Olesen.
Olesen is a strange betting proposition and often a value one. He began his career on the European Tour with a huge reputation and lots of promise and he was very often far too short to back but the market seems to largely ignore him now, despite the fact he's won three times in 145 European Tour appearances.
In his last three starts he's finished 19th at the Open de Espana, eighth at the Shenzhen International and 15th at the China Open and at the beginning of the year he finished second in Qatar and eighth in Dubai. That's a better level of 2016 form than many players trading shorter than him and given the great record of the Danish at this events, his ability to handle poor conditions and his respectable wins to runs ratio, I was more than happy to back him at 80.079/1.
Once I'd finished my research, I had these four things written down - English, Driving Accuracy, GIR and poor conditions. And as a result, I'm going in again with Andrew 'Beef' Johnston but this time at a very juicy triple-figure price.
I backed Johnston before the off on his latest start (in Morocco after he'd won the Open de Espana at Valderrama) and he's well worth chancing again at a much bigger price. After a reasonable start in Morocco, Johnston drifted down the leaderboard to finish outside the top-30 at the Hassan Trophée II but he was in tip-top form before that with very impressive stats. When he won the Open de Espana he topped the DA and GIR stats and in his four starts before that he'd finished no worse than eighth for DA and 13th for GIR.
I'm more than happy to dismiss his performance a week after breaking his European Tour duck and I thought he was a fair price at 120.0119/1!
A Scotsman hasn't won the Irish since Monty won the third of his titles in 2001 but that could change this year. Knox is well-fancied but the one I like most is Richie Ramsay. He's another really neat and tidy player with strong DA and GIR figures and judging by his sixth place finish in the China Open last time out, he's trending in the right direction after the recent birth of his first child. He took a bit of a break from the game after that and took a few starts to get going again but if he's worked hard since that sixth place in China, he could very easily get involved here.
I've also thrown a few pounds at fellow Scot, Paul Lawrie, at a huge price and I've also backed Darren Clarke...
I know that Dazzler is badly out of form but if the spark is ever going to ignite it'll be here at the K Club. The star of the 2006 Ryder Cup, shot 60 here in 1999 and with course form figures reading MC-25-4-2-7-1-20-5-4, I can believe a couple of firms have opened up at 500/1 about him. I was more than happy to have taken in excess of 300.0299/1 on the exchange and the 300/1 available with the Sportsbook is not to be sniffed at either.
I'll be back tomorrow with my AT&T Byron Nelson preview.
You can read the betting.betfair golf tipsters Irish Open each-way tips behind the link.
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