Steve previews this week's European Tour action from Ireland, where he fancies Paul Lawrie to go well on a course that might just suit him...
“Paul Lawrie’s an experienced Ryder Cupper, a major champion and a fine links exponent and it’s about time the Scots took this title again.”
With a long and distinguished history stretching right back to the 1920's, the Irish Open has been a regular on the European Tour since 1975. Seve Ballesteros, Sir Nick Faldo, Bernard Langer and Colin Montgomerie have all won the event three times.
The Montgomerie Course, Carton House GC, Maynooth, Co. Kildare, Republic of Ireland
Par 72, 7,301 yards
Stroke index in 2006 - 74.43
Designed by Colin Montgomerie and opened in 2003, the Montgomerie Course is a wind-exposed inland links with severely sloping greens and cavernous bunkers.
The fairways are fairly undulating and of average width but tee-shots are tricky as the majority of them aren't straight from the tee. Players either need to hit very precise tee-shots or be able to shape the ball both ways. The semi-rough is 3cm long and 1.8 metres wide, the intermediate is 6.4cm long and 1.8 metres wide and the rough itself is maintained at 7.5cm and was cut for the last time on Friday.
The greens are Creeping Bent grass and are expected to run at up to 11 on the stimpmeter - although their speed will be controlled depending on the weather.
Water is in play on just three holes - the 1st, 17th and 18th.
In addition to this event in both 2005 and 2006, the Montgomerie was also used for the European Amateur Championship last year - won by Welshman Rhys Pugh.
Stephen Dodd, also from Wales, won this event here in 2005, beating David Howell in a playoff, after both men had reached nine under-par and Thomas Bjorn won a year later with a five under-par 283 total. The 2006 renewal was played in appalling conditions and had to be finished on the Monday. Paul Casey, who finished runner-up, described it as "the worst five days I've played in".
In 2005, the four par fives, holes 4, 8, 15 and 18, all played under-par, as did the par 4 9th and 13th holes but twelve months later only four holes averaged below par - the 9th, 13th, 15th and 18th, suggesting that the back-nine is slightly easy than the front.
Live on Sky all four days, starting at 10.00am on Thursday
Last Five Winners
2012 - Jamie Donaldson - 18
2011 - Simon Dyson -15
2010 - Ross Fisher -18
2009 - Shane Lowry -17 (playoff)
2008 - Richard Finch -10
What will it take to win the Irish Open?
I keep reading about the importance of accuracy off the tee but what few stats we have don't back that up at all. David Howell managed to make it to the playoff here in 2005, having ranked 120th for driving accuracy and Thomas Bjorn won the title twelve months later having ranked 88th, so accuracy from the tee doesn't appear to be an essential prerequisite, and neither does length off the tee. Howell ranked 73rd for driving distance and the man who beat him in the playoff, Dodd, ranked 48th, and Bjorn ranked just 57th.
Both Dodd and Bjorn won because they found more than their fair share of greens in regulation and because they both putted well.
Is there an angle in?
I've struggled to find one and the one that I have found is fairly tenuous but here goes. I just wonder if there's a course correlation with the Centenary Course at Gleneagles - the venue of the Johnnie Walker Championship and next year's Ryder Cup.
Form-wise, the first two home here in 2006, Bjorn and Casey, have both won at Gleneagles and 2005 winner, Stephen Dodd, has a reasonable if not spectacular record there.
The greens are the same speed and grass type and like the Montgomerie, the Centenary Course is exposed to the wind. Given Monty lives at Gleneagles, it wouldn't be much of a surprise if there's an influence in his design at Carton House but I must stress, this theory is very much from leftfield.
Is there an identikit winner?
British and Irish players have a strong recent record and you have to go back to Bjorn in 2006 to find a winner that wasn't Irish, English or Welsh. Anyone that has won from overseas and outside of the UK has either been straight out of the top-drawer or an excellent wind player.
The two renewals don't help us much when it comes to deciding whether the Montgomerie is a catch-up course or one that suits a frontrunner. Stephen Dodd was never that far away in 2005 - he was just a stroke off the lead after round one, led at halfway and was four back with a round to go but Bjorn came from miles back. Having opened up with six over-par 78, the Dane was languishing in a tie for 107th after round one but something clicked, because he followed that with rounds of 66 and 67 and incredibly, he was tied for the lead with a round to go.
As always, keeping an eye on the weather forecast will be beneficial if you're trading in-running and I'd suggest checking the hole averages too. As suggested above, I fancy the back nine looks easier than the front nine so a slow start may not be the end of the world. Backing someone just before they play the drivable par 4 13th may be the best time to strike.
At this stage, the early-late draw looks favourable but do keep an eye on the forecasts.
It's not often that I look at the market leaders before an event and find it hard to argue against their prices but that's the case here. Rory McIlroy hasn't been playing as bad as his results suggest and if you disregard Graeme McDowell's inexplicably poor effort at the US Open, his recent form is very strong. I wouldn't put anyone off backing either of them at the prices, although it's worth highlighting that Rory missed the cut here in 2005 and G-Mac did so in both 2005 and 2006, so they certainly don't tick the course form box.
Having backed Thomas Bjorn at 36.035/1 just last week, it would be very easy to immediately dismiss him at almost 20 points lower here but maybe he's not that bad a price after all? He's finished inside the top-four in each of his last three outings and when he won here eight years ago, he went from trailing by nine to tied for the lead in the space of 36 holes, so he obviously has an aptitude for the Montgomerie.
Dodd may have been a surprise winner in 2005 but Nick Dougherty was the only other player in the top seven priced above 40.039/1 and the first three home a year later were all fancied. On the evidence we have to date, Montgomerie looks like a venue were the cream rises to the top so don't be in a hurry to write-off the market leaders this week.
Of the others trading towards the top of the market, Padraig Harrington looks short enough, given he went AWOL last weekend, and Shane Lowry has been well-supported on account of his membership at Carton and not much else.
Paul Lawrie has finally started to putt a bit better and if my Gleneagles theory has any credence, his win there last year is a plus. He's an experienced Ryder Cupper, a major champion and a fine links exponent and it's about time the Scots took this title again - the last one to do so was Monty in 2001.
Lawrie missed the cut in 2005 and finished tied 37th twelve months later, but he had been inside the top-ten and just three off the lead with a round to go, so he has shown something here already.
South African veteran, Darren Fichardt, caught the eye last week in Germany, where he scrambled and putted very well. He's travelling with his family at present and if they can keep him relaxed and happy away from the course he could easily follow up last week's fine effort with another here. He played here in both 2005 and 2006 and missed the cut on both occasions but at 150.0149/1, I'm prepared to overlook that.
My only other selection is fellow South African, Garth Mulroy, who only last week finished inside the top-ten on the Web.Com Tour. He has a fine all-round accurate game and is a multiple world-wide winner. He's making his debut at the Montgomerie this week but at 190.0189/1, I thought he was worth chancing.
Paul Lawrie @ 46.045/1
Darren Fichardt @ 150.0149/1
Garth Mulroy @ 190.0189/1
I'll be back later with my preview for the week's other event - the AT & T National.
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