Sport

Five to watch as we preview the 2016 Irish Open

SportBy John Brennan
Rory McIlroy would love to have a right go at winning this event
Rory McIlroy would love to have a right go at winning this event

It’s time for an Irish winner, time for one of our own to stand up and claim the crown of Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf champion when the 2016 tournament starts at the K Club on Thursday morning.

Not since Shane Lowry’s stunning triumph as an amateur seven years ago (below) has an Irishman prevailed in our premier golf event and tournament hosts Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell are just two golfers who want to put an Irish Open win on their CVs.

Those CVs may be filled with many of the finest events in the sport, but both men desire to do what Padraig Harrington and Lowry have done and triumph in their national 
championship.

Fair dues to McIlroy, who has again put his Rory Foundation right behind the tournament and ensured that, as well as Ireland’s finest golfers, the likes of Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood will be in Straffan this week.

Joining them will be two of the young guns who are the new generation of European golf, Matt Fitzpatrick and Russell Knox, as well as two grizzled veterans of the game who always savour their trips to Ireland and are loved by the Irish golf gurus in return – Thomas Bjorn and Miguel Angel Jimenez.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Jimenez – at age 52, and with a warm-up routine that consists of lighting a cigar – could turn back the years and be a force again on the main tour. He’s flying along among his peers on the Senior Tour, but this might be a chance for the Spaniard to make a charge at a really big win.

However, the biggest name among the visitors will undoubtedly be the new Masters champion Danny Willett. The Englishman committed to playing in the Irish Open before his stunning triumph in Augusta and has stayed good to his word.

Without a doubt, Willett will get a massive reception from Irish golf fans when he steps up for his opening shot on Thursday. With his Ryder Cup debut now assured, it might not be beyond the organising powers of team skipper Darren Clarke to pair Willett in the first two rounds with someone like McIlroy, Lowry or McDowell, who all might be a potential partner for the Englishman in Minnesota at the end of September.

Willett was so cool and calm as he took control of the Masters a month ago that nothing this week will throw up could bother him. If he’s in contention come the weekend, he will strike for glory in Ireland.

All these top golfers will head to Ireland tomorrow morning after competing in the Players Championship at Sawgrass this week and then they go on to the BMW Championship at Wentworth next week.

So perhaps this week might be a chance for someone like Fitzpatrick to add to his growing reputation. Though just 21, he is already a winner on the European Tour at the British Masters last October.

With all the focus on Willett’s win in Augusta, it was understandable that Fitzpatrick’s seventh place finish there went a little under the radar.

However, his closing round of 67 on a day of otherwise high-scoring between the pines at the Masters suggests a golfer with the power and touch to go well around the K Club.

Lowry has the same attributes and will give it a go, roared on by a home crowd that loves his attacking style. If he’s anywhere near the top of the leaderboard come next Sunday morning, Shane will go for the flags in pursuit of the win, be sure of that.

McIlroy himself would love to have a right go at winning this event too. He just needs to find a spark to start his season. 

Rory almost had it in Augusta, where a bad Saturday caught him out. Otherwise he’d surely have been the man to convert Jordan Speith’s final round collapse into a Green Jacket and thus a career Grand Slam.

It would be wonderful for the tournament if any of our home heroes could be going into next Sunday’s final round with every chance of turning another big golf competition at the K Club into a giant Irish party.

If that is not to happen, it may well be Fitzpatrick who moves his career up another notch by taking the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open title and joining Willett in booking a place on Clarke’s Ryder Cup side.


FIVE TO WATCH

Matthew Fitzpatrick 

I believe the 21-year-old has a great chance of winning this week. He’s one of the up-and-coming stars of European golf with the touch and putting stroke that will be needed to master the K Club’s greens. After a fine showing in Augusta last month, the Englishman won’t be lacking in confidence.

Alvaro Quiros

The very definition of a big-hitter, this Spaniard can bang the ball a mile off the tee. That will help going around the K Club, where length on the drive is a massive advantage. It’s been a while since Quiros won, so he could be a dangerous outsider this week.

Shane Lowry

My choice for an Irish winner, if we are going to get one in Kildare. Going into the Players Championship, Lowry (right) wasn’t in the best of form, but the Offaly man is one of those golfers who just needs to find a spark and he’s found it at Sawgrass this weekend. Playing in Ireland could provide that.

Thomas Pieters

Who is he, I hear you ask? Actually, Thomas is a fine young Belgian golfer who has played so well on the European Tour in the last nine months that he is right in the running for a place on Darren Clarke’s Ryder Cup team. He could do very well at the K Club.

Joost Luiten 

A steady Dutch player who always seems to find a way to hang around on the leaderboard at the weekend. Four European Tour wins indicate the 30-year-old does not falter when he finds himself on top of that leaderboard. Like Lowry, he would be hoping for a win in Ireland to get going in 2016.