The European Tour returns to Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way this week as its members begin their acclimatisation to links golf in the run-up to the final major of the year, the 148th Open Championship.
What makes this year’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open more relevant to what follows a couple of weeks later is of course that the 2019 Open will also be played on Irish soil, namely a sublime piece of north Antrim linksland at Royal Portrush.
So what better way to tune up than at another treasured piece of Irish golfing lore as the national open moves down the western seaboard from Donegal’s Ballyliffin to this week’s venue at Lahinch?
Much like the grasscourt season in professional tennis, where the stars of the ATP and WTA Tours have a narrow window to transfer from the red clay of Spain, Italy and France to the pristine lawns of England for Wimbledon, so too do golfers have a limited opportunity to adjust from manicured parkland courses to the bump and run, rough and tumble of a true links challenge before bidding for the auld Claret Jug at the oldest major.
Lahinch, starting on Thursday, marks the first of three such tests, culminating on the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush as the Open Championship returns to Irish shores for the first time since 1951. In between sits the Scottish Open, which next week is staged at the Renaissance Club, the course next door to Muirfield on another stretch of hallowed linksland around the town of North Berwick on the East Lothian coast.
Despite its location, opinion is divided as to whether the Renaissance offers a genuine links experience but there is no argument when it comes to Lahinch and though Rory McIlroy is giving it a skip this week, preferring to play the Scottish Open the week before Portrush, there are plenty of others viewing the Irish Open as an ideal workout ahead of the big one further north a fortnight later.
Tournament host Paul McGinley has overcome initial misgivings about the quality of the field to deliver a roster that may be lacking the big and hoped-for American stars but still possesses a punch to offer a competitive market in a European Tour Rolex Series event that stands on its own two feet in terms of prestige and a purse of $7 million (€6.2m, £5.5m) that tops the opposing PGA Tour offering this week and thus carries the most Official Golf World Ranking points.
Not overly long at just over 7,000 yards, the Alister Mackenzie-design, updated by Martin Hawtree, is nevertheless a course for the thinking golfer, the shotmaker and strategist and, if the wind gets up just a small bit this week at this surfing town, we will get a tournament that will offer a genuine test on the sort of ground for which the game was invented.
So who is best equipped to rise to the challenge? With all four Irish amateur “majors” played on links courses, including the South of Ireland championship at Lahinch on an annual basis, this type of golf is in the DNA of the home competitors. Yet the last Irishman to win an Irish Open when played on a links course is Shane Lowry an amateur at Baltray in 2009.
This tournament is notoriously difficult to win for home players, only McIlroy in 2016 at the parkland K Club, having since emulated Lowry and Padraig Harrington at Adare Manor in 2007 the only previous Irish winner of his national open since John O’Leary at Portmarnock all the way back in 1982.
Lowry’s victory a decade ago as a 300/1 longshot was consistent with the regular emergence of an outsider lifting the trophy (Marko Ilonen at Fota Island in 2014 anyone?) but, by and large, the Irish Opens played on linksland tend to produce champions with proven experience of the conditions delivered by the seaside on this sort of terrain.
Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Contenders
The tournament favourite and 2017 champion whose Portstewart victory was his first notable achievement on a links course. Followed it up with a tie for fourth at Ballyliffin last year.
An Englishman with the sea in his veins having grown up playing the Lancashire links at Birkdale and Hillside, where he finished T8 in this year’s British Masters. Fleetwood was a Ryder Cup hero alongside Francesco Molinari playing the linksy Le Golf National and was T12 behind the Italian at Carnoustie in last year’s Open.
The 2010 Open champion was tied for seventh at Pebble Beach in the recent US Open and makes his first Irish Open appearance in a decade this week.
The Postman has previously delivered on Mackenzie tracks with a strong record at Augusta National and has also come close at The Open. Lahinch should suit him down to the ground.
Another Englishman with proven links credentials after finishing runner-up in last summer’s Scottish Open at Gullane, then tied for sixth further up the east coast at Carnoustie in The Open. Was also T2 on the links at Hillside alongside Matt Wallace (12/1) in May.
The straight-hitting defending champion, a play-off winner over Ryan Fox at Ballyliffin 12 months ago, is a Scot who grew up playing links golf and was well used to putting on their slower greens, dropping consecutive 40-foot putts on the 72nd holes and in the play-off to edge past Fox.
The Dane, a successful Ryder Cup captain’s pick at Le Golf National last September was T6 at Ballyliffin and then T12 at Carnoustie during a productive links leg of his season last summer. Coming off a top-10 finish a the BMW International Open and could be in the mix for at least a top-six, each-way finish at Lahinch.
Leading Irishman contenders
Who’ll be the best of the Irish at Lahinch?
Leading Irishman at Ballyliffin last year alongside McIlroy, albeit 12 strokes back from the play-off but has rediscovered his best form in 2019, winning in Abu Dhabi, T2 behind McIlroy in Canada four weeks ago and then a top-30 finish at the US Open.
The Offaly pro, now world number 35 and third in the Race to Dubai on the European Tour, won the 2009 Irish Open at Co.Louth on the links at Baltray as an amateur returns to Ireland with his best chance yet of reclaiming his national open title.
Will arrive at Lahinch on a high after qualifying for The Open at hometown course Royal Portrush having invested so much into the pursuit of a starting berth and getting his reward via a T8 at the Canadian Open.
Followed that with an impressive T16 at the US Open on his return to Pebble Beach and like Irish Open host Paul McGinley, GMac won the South of Ireland at Lahinch in his amateur days. Form plus course history is a likeable combination.
So-so form this season, including a second missed cut in a row at the weekend in Valderrama, Dunne’s high point of was a tie for fourth in Denmark at the end of May. He is capable of showing brilliance as when he won the British Masters in 2017 but since turning pro at the end of 2015, the year he shot three rounds in the 60s at St Andrews as an amateur at The Open, his best Irish Open result was a T40, last year at Ballyliffin.
The 2007 Irish Open champion at Adare Manor needs no introduction as one of the great links exponents of the modern era, his two Open Championships in 07 and 08 take care of that and victory at the South of Ireland here in Lahinch went a long way to creating that skillset. Missed cuts in both the Irish Open and Open last year count against the 47-year-old but as was always the way, Europe’s 2020 Ryder Cup captain has been talking up his chances this time around.
The west Waterford golfer who earns his corn on the PGA Tour plays his first Irish Open as a pro having earned an invitation to compete on home soil on the back of an excellent run of form in late spring that has since tailed off in the United States.
Will have plenty of support in his native Munster but mind may be on securing his Tour card stateside, especially after a missed cut in Detroit last Friday.
Odds correct at time of posting. Subject to change.