Open Championship winners Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry are the marquee names on the European Tour this week as we take in the Irish Open and Steve Rawlings is here with the preview...
“High-class winners have won at the venue, past winners have a great record in the event and in what isn’t the strongest of tournaments, Rory’s a fair price.”
The Irish Open has had a bit of a chequered history. 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.
Last year's renewal wasn't the strongest when staged in late September, following the European Tour's pandemic-enforced break, but the tournament has generally gone from strength to strength and with the likes of Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry and Tommy Fleetwood in the field this week, this year's renewal is a fair one.
It's a nomadic event and this year we're off to the Mount Juliet Estate in Co Kilkenny for what is the 66th edition.
Mount Juliet Estate, Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, Ireland
Par 72, 7,250 yards
Mount Juliet is a Jack Nicklaus designed parkland course with generous fairways framed majestically by mature oak and beech trees.
Having opened in 1991, Mount Juliet hosted this event in 1993, '94 and '95, as well as the Irish Senior Open in 1999 and the WGC - American Express (now the WGC-Mexico Championship) in 2002 and 2004 when conditions varied greatly. Tiger Woods won the 2002 edition in 25-under-par and in wet and windier conditions two years later, Ernie Els beat Thomas Bjorn by a stroke in 18-under-par.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, beginning at 10:00 on Thursday
Last Six Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices
2020- John Catlin -10 65.064/1
2019 - Jon Rahm -16 10.09/1
2018 - Russell Knox -14 (playoff) 28.027/1
2017 - Jon Rahm -24 17.5
2016 - Rory McIlroy -12 5.49/2
2015 - Soren Kjeldsen -2 (playoff) 340.0339/1
Irish Open Results at Mount Juliet
1st Nick Faldo -12 (playoff)
2nd Jose Maria Olazabal -12
3rd David Frost -9
1st Bernard Langer -13
T2nd John Daly -12
T2nd Robert Allenby -12
1st Sam Torrance -11 (playoff)
T2nd Howard Clark -11
T2nd Robert Allenby -11
WGC Results at Mount Juliet
1st Tiger Woods -25 DD 24 DA 24 GIR 3 SC 1 PA 6
2nd Retief Goosen -24 DD 9 DA 12 GIR 12 SC 7 PA 3
3rd Vijay Singh -21 DD 24 DA 24 GIR 3 SC 1 PA 6
1st Ernie Els -18 DD 2 DA 62 GIR 11 SC 1 PA 1
2nd Thomas Bjorn -17 DD 8 DA 12 GIR 1 SC 4 PA 22
3rd David Howell -13 DD 37 DA 4 GIR 3 SC 20 PA 12
DD = Driving Distance
DA = Driving Accuracy
GIR = Greens In Regulation
SC = Scrambling
PA = Putting Average
What Will it Take to Win the Irish Open?
We probably shouldn't read too much into the stats of just two editions, but we can see that a great short game and a hot putter were the secrets to success in both 2002 and 2004.
If the conditions are fair, which they're forecasted to be, we can expect another very low scoring event at what appears to be an easy venue for the pros. When Woods won here in 2002, a bogey at the 72nd hole was his only dropped shot of the week.
Will the Cream Rise to the Top Again?
The six-time major winner, Nick Faldo, won the third of his three straight Irish Open titles at Mount Juliet back in 1993 and every winner at the course has been straight out of the top drawer.
Bernard Langer, who won the US Masters twice won the '94 edition and the 1995 winner, Sam Torrance was a stalwart on the European Tour for many a year, winning 21 titles and appearing in eight Ryder Cups.
Tiger Woods, who was the 3.259/4 favourite when he won the WGC - American Express, needs no introduction, and Ernie Els, who's won four major champions, was the 9.08/1 second favourite in 2004.
The winners here have all been top-class and the placed players haven't been too bad either. In five events here to date, the cream has risen to the top every time.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
The Mount Juliet winners have been straight out of the top drawer and we've seen some very high quality multiple winners of the Irish Open too with the brand-new major champion, Jon Rahm, who won the title in 2017 and 2019, the latest to win the event more than once.
In total, 11 players have won the Irish Open on more than one occasion and Faldo, Langer, Seve Ballesteros and Colin Montgomerie have all won the title three times.
For what it's worth, Tiger Woods won here wire-to-wire and Ernie Els was in control at halfway so if the scoring is as good as I suspect it'll be, a fast start may prove to be vital.
Looking at the very early forecasts, an early start on day one may be advantageous.
Rory McIlroy's Irish Open record is generally poor. He won the event in 2016 at the K Club but he missed the cut when defending at Portstewart and that was the fifth time he's failed to make the weekend. His victory five years ago is his only top-five in a dozen attempts and he's been mildly criticized for not playing in either of the last two renewals.
After a lean spell, Rory is definitely going in the right direction and in his last four starts he's won the Wells Fargo Championship and finished seventh in the US Open, where he traded at a low of 3.259/4 when he hit the front towards the end of the back nine on Sunday. He finished the US Open poorly and 49th at the USPGA Championship and 18th in The Memorial Tournament following his win in the Wells weren't great efforts but he's going in the right direction and he's putting nicely.
Shane Lowry famously won the Irish Open as an amateur back in 2009 but his record since is as ordinary as Rory's. His fifth-place finish in 2013 is far and away his best effort in 11 attempts since, with a tie 20th in 2017 his next best finish.
Lowry endured a poor weekend at the US Open last time out, shooting 72-79 to finish 65th but he's been in fair form of late, finishing fourth at the USPGA Championship and sixth in The Memorial Tournament in his two previous starts.
Without a win in the last two years, not in great form, and with Irish Open form that reads MC-MC-MC-21-MC-10-23, Tommy Fleetwood is very easy to dismiss.
I was happy to take a small chance on world number 10, Rory McIlroy, at 6.86/1, who's the only player in the field inside the top-30 in the world rankings.
His poor Irish Open record is definitely the biggest negative but should it be something to worry about deeply? He's only played in the event twice since he won it and there's no logical reason why he can't double up.
High-class winners have won at the venue, past winners have a great record in the event and in what isn't the strongest of tournaments, he's a fair price.
Only last week, we witnessed a top quality player dropping down from the PGA Tour to win in Europe (Viktor Hovland - BMW International Open) and after the front three or four in the market, this event lacks depth.
Rory McIlroy @ 6.86/1
I'll be back tomorrow with the Rocket Mortgage Classic preview.
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