Mid-May is traditionally the time when the weather in the UK and Ireland is deemed warm and reliable enough to host a European Tour event.
And so, after continuing its global jaunt in Mauritius last week, the Tour pitches up in County Kildare for this week’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open hosted by the Rory Foundation.
The man himself, Rory McIlroy, has again helped lure an impressive cast to the event although this year it moves from his native Northern Ireland to the K Club which lies south of the border.
European golf fans will remember it fondly (their U.S. counterparts less so) as the host of the 2006 Ryder Cup. Ian Woosnam skippered the Euros to a record-equalling 18½ to 9½ win, with Tiger setting the tone for the match by hooking his opening tee-shot into the River Liffey.
The field includes Masters champion Danny Willett, who will be making his first start on the European Tour since his dramatic win at Augusta National.
The tournament dates back to 1927 and four European Tour legends have won it three times – Seve Ballesteros (1983, 1985, 1986), Bernhard Langer (1984, 1987, 1994), Nick Faldo (1991, 1992, 1993) and Colin Montgomerie (1996, 1997, 2001).
The course - Ryder Cup Palmer Course
The K Club has two Arnold-Palmer-designed courses, The Palmer (this week’s venue) and the Smurfit. The Ryder Cup was held on the former along with The European Open from 1995 to 2003 and again in 2005. It will certainly be a very different test to last year when the tournament was played on the classic and rugged links of Royal County Down. The Palmer is a much more modern, American-style, resort course that measures 7,350 yards. Quoted in the Irish Independent, Greens superintendent Gerry Byrne says: "There is 10 years of additional growth on trees (since the 2006 Ryder Cup) 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. The trees, however, are now filling their intended role in how the course should be played. 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." Long, straight hitting will do well this week and that should help Rory, who probably felt cramped at Royal County Down last year.
Last 10 Irish Open Winners, Venue And Score
2015 Soren Kjeldsen (Royal County Down) -2
2014 Mikko Ilonen (Fota Island Resort) -13
2013 Paul Casey (Carton House) -14
2012 Jamie Donaldson (Royal Portrush) -18
2011 Simon Dyson (Killarney) -15
2010 Ross Fisher (Killarney) -18
2009 Shane Lowry (Co Louth) -17
2008 Richard Finch (Adare Manor) -10
2007 Padraig Harrington (Adare Manor) -5
2006 Thomas Bjorn (Carton House) -5
Notes: One thing to notice in the above list is that all 10 winners were from Northern Europe. It shows four Englishman, two Irishmen, two Danes, a Welshman and a Finn. The cooler climate in Northern Europe is one obvious explanation.
2005 European Open at K Club (last European Tour event played on Palmer Course)
Notes: Again, northern Europeans are to the fore (10 of the 12 listed) with two Englishmen, a Scot, an Irishman and a Swede comprising the top five.
Showers, although brief, are in the forecast for all four days while the best chance of sun breaking up the clouds comes in Sunday’s final rounds. Temperatures will be in the low 60s while winds are relatively modest although it could get a little breezy on Thursday.
The leading contenders
After a modest start (two top 10s in his first six appearances), any discussions of Rory’s Irish Open record are now accompanied by awkward coughs and a quick change of subject. He’s missed the cut in each of the last three years and surely hit rock bottom when opening with an 80 at Royal County Down last year. Never better than T7 (Adare Manor in 2008), McIlroy will be desperate to put in a huge performance, especially as he gives so much to the tournament in an ambassadorial role. This course should suit him much more than last year but he remained in nearly-but-not-quite mode with a T12 at Sawgrass last week. It’s hardly a crisis but he’s won just once since August and, for him, that’s disappointing.
The new Masters champion will be walking tall this week as he tees it up in Europe again. Willett did well at Royal County Down last year, finishing T6 at a course where he’d also contested the 2007 Walker Cup. That added to a third place at Fota Island in 2014 and a T10 at Carton House in 2013 so his recent Irish Open record is one of the best in the field. It was hardly a surprise to see him miss the cut by one at Sawgrass given the recent whirlwind of press commitments, the tough course and spending time with his new baby but the extra two days off are likely to boost his chances here.
Lowry wrote himself into folklore in this event in 2009 when winning it as an amateur and landing some clued-up punters a 500/1 payout in terrible conditions on his home course at County Louth. He also took fifth at Carton House in 2013 and this year he’ll return as a WGC winner having landed the Bridgestone Invitational last September. The big Irishman has struggled over recent months but there were some good signs at The PLAYERS Championship last week where he opened 65-68 and eventually finished T16.
It’s all ifs, buts and maybes but had Knox finished par-par (3-4) in Saturday’s third round at The PLAYERS Championship rather than dropping seven shots (9-5), he’d have finished solo second. That calamitous finish to round three led to an 80 and shot him out of contention but fair play to the Scot for responding with a 68 on Sunday to finish T19. It followed on from his second place at Hilton Head so he really is in a strong run of form again after an understandable dip following his breakthrough win in the WGC-HSBC Champions in China. This is his Irish Open debut.
It’s not quite as shocking as Rory’s poor recent record but G-Mac is another who has consistently fallen short in his home Open. From 14 starts, he’s managed just a single top 10 although at least it came just two years ago (T6 at Fota Island). The Northern Irishman played the 2005 European Open on this week’s course and finished T13 which is encouraging, as is his T9 at Sawgrass on Sunday where he flourished over the weekend to crack the top 10 with a pair of closing 69s. He’d missed four of five cuts before that so it looks as if he might have turned a corner.
The Dutchman was runner-up in this event the last time he played it (Carton House, 2013) while he also closed with a 66 to take T9 at Killarney in 2010. Two top 10s from his four Irish Open starts is appealing enough but gamers will be drawn in further by his 2016 form. Luiten had back-to-back second places in the Open de Espana and Shenzhen International in China last month and has also posted top 10s in Thailand, Dubai and Abu Dhabi this season. He didn’t play at Sawgrass so should be nicely rested.
Westwood was Europe’s joint top points scorer (4) at the K Club in 2006 and didn’t lose a match. He also won the European Open in back-to-back years at this week’s venue in 1999 and 2000 so it’s a place close to his heart. Is such old course form enough to make him worthy of a pick? He certainly isn’t anywhere near as consistent but to prove he’s far from done yet, the Englishman came on strong to finish runner-up at the Masters on his last start. As for his Irish Open record, it’s admirable with five top sevens in his last 11 starts. All those came between 1996 and 2008 however.
RCB had a golden chance to win last year’s Irish Open at Royal County Down but missed a three-man play-off after bogeying 18. Nevertheless, it was another excellent showing in this tournament and added to his fifth at Carton House in 2013 and second place at Royal Portrush in 2012. This has already been a year to remember after he followed a third place at the WGC-Dell Match Play with a fourth in the Houston Open and then continued his impressive play with T16 at Augusta National and T17 at Valderrama. He did miss the cut at Sawgrass but 72-71 was hardly a crime and we should expect him to respond in a tournament he loves.
The German missed the cut last year on his return to the tournament after a seven-year gap but his previous visit did produce a T10 at Adare Manor in 2008. He’s not exactly firing on all cylinders at the moment but he did follow T49 at the Masters with a top six at the Open de Espana on his most recent start on the European Tour. He’s since posted T41 at Quail Hollow and T39 at Sawgrass.
The little Dane held firm to win the title at short and tricky Royal County Down last year but don’t just think he can only contend at certain venues. Despite his lack of length, Kjeldsen was prominent for all four days at Augusta National and eventually posted T7. He followed that with a top four in the Open de Espana at Valderrama before settling for T43 at Sawgrass on Sunday. The defending champion has only had one other top 10 in this event (T6 at Fota Island in 2002) while, that same year, he finished T16 at the K Club when it hosted the European Open.
The Next Rung
He’s making cuts in big events but Wiesberger isn’t doing enough to thrill managers at the moment. That theme continued with T49 at Sawgrass and came a month after his T34 at the Masters. He does do well on his home European soil though as shown by a win in last summer’s Open de France and a fourth at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland. But what really gets our attention is his Irish Open record. The Austrian has only played it twice but was fourth at Killarney in 2011 and runner-up at Royal County Down last year after losing a play-off.
A virtual unknown to most until recently, the 20-year-old Korean now has his place in the record books alongside Seve, Sir Nick Faldo, Jose Maria Olazabal, Sergio Garcia and Matteo Manassero as the only players to win two European Tour events before turning 21. Wang is now seeking a third straight victory after his back-to-back wins in Mauritius and Morocco in the last fortnight but obviously this is a much deeper field. Those who picked him to win those two events might want to leave some chips on the table although it’s asking a lot for him to get right in the mix again on his Irish Open debut.
Since his hugely impressive T7 at the Masters, Fitzpatrick has missed cuts at The Heritage (surprisingly, as course should have suited) and The PLAYERS Championship (despite an opening 69). On his last return to these shores, Fitzpatrick won the British Masters at Woburn while two cracks at the Irish Open have produced T9 at Fota Island and T8 at Royal County Down last year. Competition is tough for a place on the six-man European Tour Fantasy game line-up but the English youngster has solid claims.
The Swedish veteran has missed his last two Irish Open cuts (2015 and 2009) but did manage T7 at Adare Manor in 2007. Of most relevance though is his fourth place on this course when it staged the 2005 European Open while he also made the top 10 in both 2006 and 2007 when the K Club’s other course (Smurfit) played host. Talking of the European Open, Hanson’s current cut streak of 10 started at that event in its new home of Germany last September. During that run he’s had six top 20s including a best of T6 in the China Open on his last start.
This has been a memorable event for the Welshman as he posted his first European Tour victory in the 2012 edition at Royal Portrush. He’s made his last five Irish Open cuts and that run also includes T10 at Carton House on his last appearance in 2013. As for the K Club, he’s 3-for-3 on the Palmer course with a best of T19 in 2005. Very current form shows a missed cut at Quail Hollow and T48 in New Orleans but he did follow T19 in Houston with a creditable T21 at Augusta National.
Fisher is another former winner trying his luck again this week. His big moment came in the 2013 Irish Open at Killarney while he’s also sprinkled further top 10s in 2006, 2012 and 2014. They were all on different courses so it seems he enjoys this event wherever it’s played. The Englishman is 11-for-11 worldwide since the start of November so offers reliability too. The highlights are third in the WGC-HSBC Champions in China and T6 in the Open de Espana last month. Yet another player who would be a worthy addition to a fantasy line-up this week.
A back-to-back winner on the European Tour last year, Pieters has thrown in a second place (Abu Dhabi) and a third (Thailand) so far in 2016. Last seen finishing T26 at Valderrama, this will be his third start in the event. He flopped at Royal County Down last year when shooting 78-79 but did take T38 at Fota Island in 2014. He’s not the most consistent in the world but Pieters is very capable of landing the big cheques.
With top 10s on his last two European Tour starts, Noren has to be taken seriously this week. They came via T6 in the Open de Espana and T9 at the Volvo China Open. He’s got a decent record in this event too despite playing it sparsely. The Swede was T12 on debut in 2007, T57 in 2009 and T21 at Royal County Down last year. He’ll certainly be fresh as this is just his sixth start of the season but those two recent good performances suggests all is well again following injury problems.
Two Danes have won this event in the last 10 years and it would come as no surprise if Olesen improved that record. He owns five top 20s in his last eight starts this season, the most recent T8 and T15 in the two events held in China. He’s also posted two top 20s in three starts in this tournament (T18 at Royal Portrush in 2012 and T15 at Killarney in 2011). The Ryder Cup hopeful secured the latest of his three European Tour titles in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland last October.
The Swede jets in from Florida after a missed cut at Sawgrass but he did make the top 20 at Quail Hollow the week before. That was actually his first top 40 in eight starts following his second place at La Quinta so the last few months have been a bit of a struggle. This is his tournament debut so the nearest location form we have is his T52 in last October’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland and T74 in the Open Championship at St Andrews.
Rounds of 80-77 at Augusta National and 77-73 at Sawgrass are certainly off-putting but between those elite events Sullivan did travel back to Europe to contest the Open de Espana at Valderrama and battled away in tough conditions to finish T16. Also a runner-up in Dubai earlier this season, the Englishman will be contesting his fifth Irish Open. It’s been hit-and-miss so far with two missed cuts, a T22 at Carton House in 2013 and an impressive T6 at Royal County Down last year.
Despite playing it just three times, this has been a good tournament for the Thai and he’s improved his finish each time. It started with T20 on debut at County Louth in 2009, continued with T18 at Royal Portrush in 2012 and peaked at T10 in last year’s renewal at Royal County Down. As usual, Jaidee has struggled in recent PGA TOUR starts (MC at Texas and Heritage) but he’s best judged on European Tour form and that shows two top 20s in his last four starts.
Who’s On The Team?
With missed cuts in each of the last three years and all his off-the-course commitments, is Rory actually worth a place in a six-man line-up, never mind vice-captain (double points) or captain (triple points)?
It’s a brave call to leave him out but there are obvious reasons to do so, especially with so many other strong contenders.
Masters champion Danny Willet has a superb Irish Open record, as does Bernd Wiesberger (second and fourth in two starts in this event).
I’ll reveal my six-man line-up for the European Tour’s Fantasy game in Tuesday’s Playing The Tips feature.