A stellar field will assemble at Portstewart on Thursday for the 62nd edition of the Irish Open so read Steve's in-depth preview ahead of this week's European Tour action here...
“The Danes have a decent record in this event and Olesen is the most likely candidate to boost that record. His recent form figures read 8-31-MC-4-34-3 so he’s in decent nick and he’s a terrific links exponent. He’s a former winner of the Alfred Dunhill Links and at 40.039/1 I thought he was fairly priced to win for a fifth time on the European Tour.”
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. It's been an ever-present on the European Tour since 1974 and now that Rory McIlroy has put his full weight behind it the tournament has gone from strength to strength.
This is the third year running that Rory has hosted the event with his charitable foundation and the field is the strongest it's been in many a year now that it's been moved from its traditional May slot to a much more favourable position in the schedule.
The Irish Open is a nomadic event and this year we're off to the Portstewart Golf Club in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland for what is the 62nd edition.
Portstewart is a 54 hole links complex so the Irish Open kicks off a three week stretch of links golf on the European Tour. Next week we're off to the Dundonald Links for the Scottish Open and the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale is now just a fortnight away.
The Strands Course, Portstewart Golf Club, Portstewart, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland.
Par 72, 7,004 yards
The Strands Course began life as nine-hole course measuring 1,495 yards way back in 1894. It was redesigned by Willie Park jnr in the 1920s.
In 1986, a piece of land known as "Thistly Hollow" was purchased, enabling the club to build a stunning new seven holes through towering dunes and fabulous and natural links land. Designed by Des Giffin, the Strand Course is described as the jewel in the Portstewart portfolio.
One of the two stroke play rounds at the 2014 Amateur Championship was played here but that's as far as it goes course form wise. For what its worth and I'm not sure it's a lot, here's the leaderboard.
Rory McIlroy has described the course as 'one of the hidden gems in Ireland' and I've also read him quotes as saying 'everyone says the front nine is one of the best collection of nine holes you'll play anywhere in the whole world'.
For more on the course, this hole-by-hole guide in the Belfast Telegraph is worth a look and there are a number of videos worth a look on YouTube but I thought the one below was about the best.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 10:30 on Thursday.
Last Five Winners
2016 - Rory McIlroy -12
2015 - Soren Kjeldsen -2 (playoff)
2014 - Mikko Ilonen -13
2013 - Paul Casey -14
2012 - Jamie Donaldson - 18
What Will it Take to Win the Irish Open?
Like the 2009, 2012 and 2015 editions, the Irish Open returns to a links venue and although we don't have any direct course form to ponder, other than the very limited amateur form from three years ago, links form translates nicely from course to course.
Check out those three results, form at Open Championships, which are always played on a links course, recent editions of the Scottish Open (from 2011 onwards) and also the Alfred Dunhill Links, which is held in Scotland every autumn.
Handling windy conditions well is nearly always essential on a links course and that's going to be the case over the weekend (and especially on Sunday) if the early forecasts are anything to go by.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Players from the UK and Ireland have a great record in this event, and they've won nine of the last 12 renewals, but the Danes can't readily be dismissed. Soren Kjeldsen, Thomas Bjorn and Anders Hansen have all won the tournament in the last 15 years so if it isn't an Irishman, Scotsman Englishman, or Welshman scooping the prize this week it might be a Dane given their current one in five Irish Open strike rate.
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 Rory fans.
Keep an Eye on the Open Championship Market
Having two tournaments on links layouts prior to the Open Championship is a masterstroke by the European Tour and I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Open winner come July 23 hasn't played in both the Irish and Scottish Opens.
The first four home in last year's Open all played the Scottish Open the week before and six of the last seven Open winners (since the Scottish Open has been played on a links track) warmed up for the year's biggest tournament at the Scottish Open. If one links tournament can get you tuned in ready for the Open, imagine what two can do?
Of all the leading fancies for Royal Birkdale in a fortnight's time, Rory is the only one currently entered to play both events. He could shorten up dramatically from his current price of 13.5 to win the Open should he show something this week and next so he's well worth keeping an eye on but anyone that figures here, or in Scotland next week, is going to see their price for major success drop.
Obviously, we've no tournament form at the venue to look back on but links golf is links golf wherever it's played and making up ground isn't always easy on a links track.
A fast start is usually essential in Open Championships and looking back at the last three Irish Opens staged at a links course; all three winners have been in the van throughout.
Shane Lowry was tied for 10th and four of the pace at County Louth in 2009 but he led all the way after that, eventually winning in a playoff. Jamie Donaldson, at Royal Portrush in 2012, was never more than three off the pace and in front with a round to go and Soren Kjeldsen, at Royal County Down two years ago, was always inside the front three, never more than two strokes back, and in front after 54 holes.
It's worth keeping an eye on the weather forecast though. At this early stage, Sunday looks blustery and there always a chance that someone goes against the head to post a rare decent score from off the pace.
Course experience could be a huge plus for Rory McIlroy this week and I can see him leaving some ordinary form behind. As already highlighted above, defending champions have a very good record in the tournament and I don't think he's too short at around the 7/1 mark, even though there are negatives.
Rory hasn't played as much golf as he would have liked this year, thanks to a rib injury he picked up in South Africa in January, and with Nike ceasing club manufacture, he's had to get used to new bats but the big negative for me is his putting. In his four starts since the WGC Match Play, his Putting Average has been 1.86, 1.75, 1.81 and 1.83 and that's not going to win tournaments anywhere. A return to familiar links greens could make all the difference and if it does he's the man to beat.
The last time we saw Hideki Matsuyama he was finishing runner-up to Brooks Koepka in the US Open and if he plays like he did there he'll take all the beating. Matsuyama was sixth behind Phil Mickelson at Muirfield on his Open Championship debut in 2013 so although he's been a bit disappointing since in that major, we do have evidence that he can handle links conditions.
It's going to very interesting to see how Jon Rahm takes to Portstewart but just as he was last week in France where he eventually finished 10th, he's a watching brief for me. This year's US Open venue, Erin Hills, was described as linksy and he didn't take to that course well so I'm more than happy to leave him out of my plans before the off.
Thanks mainly to some poor putting, Justin Rose hasn't got going again since he lost to Sergio Garcia in extra time at Augusta, and as well as Tommy Fleetwood played last week, he might be worth swerving too. He missed his next two cuts when he won in Abu Dhabi and he missed the cut at the Wales Open the week after he'd won his first event on the European Tour back in 2013, too. He's improving all the time so we might get a much better follow up this time around but winning back-to-back is notoriously tough.
I can't decide whether to back Rory or not and I may yet get him onside before the off. He'll be the main feature of Sky Sports' coverage on Thursday and we should see every shot he plays so taking a position and nursing it shouldn't be too hard. I fancy his price will shorten far quicker with a couple of birdies than it will lengthen with a slow start so I'm tempted to play him but so far I've backed just two - Thorbjørn Olesen and Michael Hoey.
As already stated, the Danes have a decent record in this event and Olesen is the most likely candidate to boost that record. His recent form figures read 8-31-MC-4-34-3 so he's in decent nick and he's a terrific links exponent. He's a former winner of the aforementioned Alfred Dunhill Links and at 40.039/1 I thought he was fairly priced to win for a fifth time on the European Tour.
Michael Hoey will know the course better than most this week and he's another to have won the Alfred Dunhill Links. He plies his trade on the challenge Tour nowadays but he's been invited to play on the European Tour four times this year and he's contended twice - in India, where he eventually finished eighth in March, and in Sicily at the Rocco Forte Open in May where he finished 11th after a disappointing weekend. Hoey has five European Tour titles to his name already and he looked too big at 270.0269/1.
I'll be back tomorrow with my Greenbrier Classic preview.
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