The European Tour hops from Wales to Northern Ireland this week for the ISPS Handa World Invitational and our man has the lowdown ahead of Thursday's start here...
“Opposing the leader or leaders through three rounds may well be worthwhile. As many as nine players have led or co-led here through three rounds and lost.”
Having been elevated to the European Tour for the first time this year, the ISPS Handa World Invitational has been in existence on the Challenge Tour since 2013, when formerly known as the Northern Ireland Open.
The ISPS Handa World Invitational is a mixed event this year (as was also the case in 2019) co-sanctioned by the European Tour, the LPGA Tour and the Ladies European Tour and it's again staged over two courses (as it was in 2019), with the field playing both Massereene Golf Club and the host course, Galgorm Castle, over the first two days before the weekend action is played out at Galgorm.
The men and women play the same courses at the same time but unlike the recent Scandinavian Mixed event, they play two separate tournaments. In order to accommodate the number of players, there is a halfway cut after 36 holes and a further cut after three rounds.
Galgorm Castle Golf Club in Ballymena has been the host course since the event's inception in 2013 and it also stepped in to stage the 2020 edition of the Irish Open, won by America's John Catlin.
Galgorm Spa & Golf, Ballymena, Northern Ireland
Massereene Golf Club, Antrim, Northern ireland
Galgorm - Par 70 - 7,087 yards
Stroke Average at the Irish Open last year 71.75
The five-time European Tour winner, Michael Hoey, plays out of Galgorm Castle Golf Club and Irish amateur, Tiarnan McLarnon, is a member of Massereene Golf Club. This is what the two had to say about this week's venues prior to the 2019 edition.
"They get the rough thick at Galgorm," Hoey said. "They set the course up really well and make it difficult for the players if you're in the rough.
"They grow the rough quite thick for the tournament, which is good, but you do have to hit the fairways. It's quite easy if you do hit the fairways, you can make birdie because it's not that long. The greens are very true so you can hole putts."
While Galgorm may suit the longer hitters in the field, Massereene might offer those whose strengths lie elsewhere the chance score well, according to McLarnon.
"I imagine the scores will be pretty low, especially around my home course. I can see someone shooting a 62 or 63 in the right conditions.
"I have the course record at Massereene, which is an eight under par 64, so if at the end of the week it was still there, I'd be very surprised. The greens are the best I've ever seen so I think someone will go low."
McLarnon was almost right. Scotland's Craig Ross tied his course record of 64 on day one so we can probably expect even lower scores at this higher level.
Northern Ireland Open Winners at Galgorm
2013 - Daan Huizing -13 (playoff)
2014 - Joakim Lagergren -13
2015 - Clement Sordet -17
2016 - Ryan Fox -19
2017 - Robin Sciot-Siegrist -3
2018 - Calum Hill -19
2019 - Jack Senior -11 (ISPS Handa World Invitational)
2020 - Tyler Koivisto -13
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 14:00 on Thursday.
What Will it Take to Win the ISPS HANDA World Invitational?
There are no stats for this event on the Challenger Tour but we can get some idea of what sort of test Galgorm presents by looking at the stats for last year's Irish Open staged here. Here's the top-six.
John Catlin -10 DD: 55, DA: 6, GIR: 6, Scr: 2, PA: 26
Aaron Rai -8 DD: 39, DA: 16, GIR: 27, Scr: 5, PA: 7
Maverick Antcliff -7 DD: 36, DA: 16, GIR: 4, Scr: 51, PA: 19
Jazz Janewattananond -7 DD: 33, DA: 32, GIR: 18, Scr: 14, PA:6
Joakim Lagergren -6 DD: 6, DA: 10, GIR: 64, Scr: 4, PA: 9
Oscar Lengden -6 DD: 23, DA: 10, GIR: 9, Scr: 54, PA: 4
DD - Driving Distance
DA - Driving Accuracy
GIR - Greens In Regulation
Scr - Scrambling
PA - Putting Average
This looks like one of those rare weeks when accuracy off the tee is of far more importance than power. With the exception of Joakim Lagergren, who finished tied for fifth at the Irish Open last year, all the placed players were fairly-short off the tee but the vast majority ranked highly for Driving Accuracy.
Given the Massereene Golf Club website states that "the narrow fairways and small greens place a priority on accuracy rather than distance' it's probably safe to assume that Driving Accuracy and Scrambling could be the key stats this week.
Although Catlin trailed by four with a round to go in the Irish Open last year, that was as far off the lead as he sat all week (trailed by just two after rounds one and two) and the man he beat by two strokes, Aaron Rai, had led after rounds one, two and three. And looking back, Catlin's 64 on Sunday to win from tied eighth, looks like a real outlier.
In eight editions of the Northern Ireland Open here, nobody has won from any more than four strokes back at any stage, suggesting making up ground here is tough but being front with a round to go doesn't look ideal either.
Winning scores have fluctuated greatly so the tournament must have been played if varying weather conditions but whatever the weather, third round leaders have a poor record.
Tyler Koivisto, who won here last year, led by three after 54 holes but he's only the third 54-hole leader to convert. Daan Huizing beat Oliver Wilson in a playoff, having led by six with a round to go of the inaugural staging and Lagergren held on to win by one a year later, having also led by six through 54 holes.
Opposing the leader or leaders through three rounds may well be worthwhile. As many as nine players have led or co-led here through three rounds and lost.
That list includes South Africa's Dylan Frittelli, who's since won on the PGA Tour, and Aaron Rai, who dusted himself down and won the Scottish Open a week after getting caught here by Catlin.
Last week's beaten playoff protagonist, Justin Harding, heads the market and rightly so. He will have been disappointed to have three-putted the first extra hole to lose to Nacho Elvira at the Cazoo Open but the Spaniard had deserved the win and Harding was quite lucky to get into a playoff in the first place. Elvira had led by six with a round to go and he traded at 1.011/100 before missing from a few feet on 18 for the win in regulation.
Harding ranked 17th for Driving Accuracy last week, 12th for Putting Average and first for Scrambling so he looks a great fit for the venues and he's already performed well around Galgorm. He played alongside Catlin in round four of the Irish Open last year having sat alongside him in eighth place with a round to go before a final round 71 saw him finish 11th.
Harding has a habit of holding his form when he's found it and he's a very fair price at 15.5 given he's no bigger than 11/1 on the High Street.
Andy Sullivan arrives in fair form following his tied 26th in the Open Championship but he's playing here for the first time and I'm not convinced the conditions are ideal. Sullivan is at his best when the conditions are kind and the scoring easy.
I backed Catlin when he won here last year at a juicy 65.064/1 but he'd just won at Valderrama and finished eighth in Portugal. He has the course win now to boast but given his current form figures read a disappointing MC-MC-MC-41-MC-MC-32, I'm far from convinced he's a value price at less than 30.029/1.
I backed him last week in Wales at 40.039/1 and he didn't exactly set the world alight, finishing tied for 32nd, so I'm happy to swerve him this week at quite a bit shorter.
Having backed him before the off and having layed Harding several times last week, and most importantly at odds-on before the playoff, I'm happy to go in again at 16.015/1.
Layed Harding again at odds on to almost level the book. Feel for Nacho, that was horrible to watch https://t.co/LptU00T0Xj? Steve Rawlings (@SteveThePunter) July 25, 2021
He won back-to-back in South Africa after finishing second in the Zambia Open in 2018 and he won the Kenya Open this year, having finished second in the event two years previous so he's backed-up on courses he's played well at previously and he's held his form nicely on several occasions.
His second placed finish in Kenya in 2019 came a week after he'd won the Qatar Masters and I'm quite confident that he'll be there or thereabouts again this week.
Justin Harding @ 16.015/1
I'll be back later today with the Find Me a 100 Winner column.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter