The European Tour breaks with tradition and returns to Europe this week – after spending most of the year on its jollies in the Middle East or Southern Hemisphere.
A decent international crew join the 14 Irish pros in the line-up as Rory McIlroy’s foundation rolls into the K Club for the first time, but recent winners have had a distinctly Celtic or Viking DNA, with the last 11 winners hailing from England (4), Ireland (2), Wales (2), Denmark (2) and Finland (1).
A less well-paid Shane Lowry was the last ‘homer’ to bag the Irish Open when triumphing as an amateur in 2009 and there’s plenty taking Paddy up on his offer at 1/5th the odds the first 7 places that the established Tour pro can do it again.
1. Shane Lowry
A 22-year-old Lowry became just the second winner in 27 years (after Padraig Harrington, 2007) to win his home title when seeing off Robert Rock in a play-off at Baltray in 2009.
There’s been nearly twice as many bets on the Clara man up to noon on Wednesday to regain the crown after establishing himself as a top pro on both the European and US Tours in the past seven years.
Threatened to shoot the lights out at Sawgrass last week in the Players Championship before a second-day slump knocked him back on his heels. But Lowry, winner of the Bridgestone International last season in the US, rebounded to finish T16 in Florida.
A T6 at the Waste Management Open has been the high-point so far this season but won’t lack for motivation on home soil as he looks for his first European Tour win since the Portugal Masters in 2012.
2 Lee Westwood
Ended a five-year hiatus from this event when finishing 53rd in hurricane conditions at Royal Co. Down last year, but has happier memories of the Arnold Palmer-designed course at the K Club.
Despite struggling with illness at the 2006 Ryder Cup , he beat Chris Di Marco (2up) to finish joint-top points scorer (on 4, with Sergio Garcia) on this track and is also a former back-to-back winner of the European Open (1990/2000).
Returns to action after finishing T2 to stablemate Danny Willett at the US Masters and did get his head in front last year at the Indonesian Masters.
3. Graeme McDowell
A Top 10 finish behind Jason Day at the Players Championship in Florida last weekend has been the high-point of the the self-styled G-Mac’s season in recent months as he’s struggled since finishing fifth at the Honda Classic earlier in the year.
The former US Open Champ and Ryder Cup regular backers are banking on an upturn in G-Mac’s fortunes and a sixth place finish at Fota Island two years ago (before being swept away in 30th at Royal County Down last year) shows that he still values this tournament despite being based in the US.
Finished strongly with two rounds of 69 in Florida and if he can up his Greens in Regulation (GIR) stats in Co .Kildare will look for another solid display ahead of next month’s US Open at Oakmont.
4 Danny Willett
Before winning last month’s US Masters, Willett took to the Irish Open like Kim Kardashian takes to self-promotion, posting 10-3-6-place finishes across three different tracks in the Emerald Isle.
The down-to-earth Sheffield lad shook off some of the rust at the Players Championship in his first start back since that life-changing win at Augusta and the birth of his son the week before, but not enough to make the cut in Florida.
He should be sharper for that run and despite being the first reigning Masters champion to line up in the Irish Open since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1994, the World No 9 sounds keen to get back to ‘normal’ after a month in dreamland.
Expect a big improvement from Florida and tees it up for the first two days with Lee Westwood and Rafael Cabrero-Bello who has a very respectable Irish Open record (2-5-26-4) in his own right.
5 Russell Knox
A 17th hole implosion on day three of the Players Championship did for the Scottish-American’s chance when he took a nine at the par 3 on moving day. Knox was sixth at the time and swinging nicely before collapsing down the field to 40th.
Was second to Brande Grace at the RBC Heritage the week before that so if taking to the Palmer Course on his Irish Open debut could make amends sharpish.
6 Matthew Fitzpatrick
The 21-year-old proved he had the stones to get the job done when winning the British Masters at Woburn last year as he led from pillar-to-post in his 34th European Tour event – seeing off Shane Lowry and last season’s Irish Open winner Soren Kjeldsen down the stretch.
Put in a huge run to finish T7 at the US Masters as the Europeans dominated at Augusta but has narrowly failed to make two cuts since.
Finished 8th last year at Royal County Down before his Woburn win and posted a 29th-placed finish at Fota Island the year before. Will want four solid days before his title defence in the UK comes up.
7 Paul Dunne
A bright start to the former Greystones’ amateur pro career after boarding the money train late last year.
Dunne famously led the Open Championship last July going into the final day before a closing 78 kiled his Major dream.
But since upgrading to business class he’s posted a Top 10 (Joburg Open) and two Top 20s (Open de Espana & Trophee Hassan II) on the European Tour ahead of his professional debut at the K Club this week.
A T13 at the Farmers Insurance Open on his debut Stateside last January also showed he can mix it with the big boys. While his price reflects a patriotic punt – he’s outrun bigger odds before.