We preview the star-studded Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, and try to pick a winner
By Thursday morning and his opening shot in the 2015 Irish Open Golf Championship at Royal County Down, even a supremely-fit athlete like Rory McIlroy might just be running on fumes.
Consider his schedule over the last few weeks: Two superb, but draining, victories on the USPGA Tour, followed by a night flight across the Atlantic to defend his PGA title at Wentworth this week.
That ended in a missed cut last Friday, quite understandable when, even before the event got going, he had to do a full corporate day with Nike as well.
All before heading to Ireland tomorrow morning for his national championship, at which he is also the host − a job that will impose yet more media and entertainment duties than would be normal for even the World No.1 golfer.
But in the unlikely event of McIlroy playing poorly this week, we cannot criticise him, for it is clear that the 26-year-old has been hoovering up the stardust for this Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, putting the squeeze on his fellow top pros to play at County Down.
This tournament has always been blessed with the best Irish professionals giving it their full support, but if were not for McIlroy putting his full weight behind the Irish Open, and doubtless doing a bit of arm-twisting too, would newly-crowned Players champion Rickie Fowler be turning up, or Sergio Garcia or Ernie Els or Martin Kaymer?
Garcia (below) is a very interesting entry. He has not played in the event since 2000, when he was defending champion at Ballybunion. Garcia’s Irish Open win the previous year, at Druids Glen, was his very first success on the European Tour.
He’s a player that Irish golf fans have always enjoyed watching, but they have had to do it mostly on television. Now Sergio will be here in the flesh and will be a big draw himself.
The biggest attractions, however, will be the host and his fellow Irish stars, especially the major winners in Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke and the former winner of the Irish Open Shane Lowry.
The Offaly man loves links golf and must be a contender for the win if he comes out of the PGA Championship in good fettle, and he ought to for that is an event at which Lowry has excelled in recent seasons.
Of course, Harrington, McDowell and Clarke know their way around this form of golf too and anyone who shoots a 61 at Northern Ireland’s other links gem, Royal Portrush, as McIlroy did as a 16-year-old, can play seaside golf too.
But it will be interesting to see what the big-name visitors, and Continental players like Victor Dubuisson and Miguel Angel Jiminez, make of Royal County Down’s special demands, which include a great deal of patience with blind shots that go wrong.
On many holes, on RCD’s front nine in particular, a golfer is shooting over marker stones and hoping they’ve got it right. However, the pros do not like getting to the other side of a big hill and then finding that what they thought was an accurate shot has bounced off a hump in the fairway and run into a bunker.
They are the bad breaks of links golf and it will be interesting to see if any of the guests verge on the edge of combustion as they discover that a ball they hoped would be on the green has instead trickled into six-inch rough.
Over the four days, good and bad bounces will even out at Royal County Down, as they always do on the greatest links courses.
The TV companies, who will beam pictures of this event all around the world thanks to McIlroy rounding up golf’s finest players, will love the four days of golf, with majestic Slieve Donard as the backdrop.
Tourism Ireland will be getting a fair old bang for their buck over the four days of golf.
Spectators who turn up, and there are still a few tickets available for Thursday, will love the way so many of Royal County Down’s greens are surrounded by natural amphitheatres, so they will look down on many of the world’s best golfers putting on the pristine surfaces of Royal County Down.
Who will win? Well, we give you five golfers to choose from below, but the reality is that if the weather gods favour the 2015 Irish Open with a bit of sunshine and a few dry days, then Ireland, and Irish golf, will be the big winner.
For that we can thank McIlroy for getting behind the tournament in a way that’s above and beyond the call of duty.
Here's my five to follow:
SERGIO GARCIA (11/1)
The Spanish star has been playing well of late, without winning! Surely he would have won at the Players in Sawgrass earlier this month but for Rickie Fowler playing magnificent golf over the last nine holes. With a bit of luck on the greens, which is where Garcia is always vulnerable, he could become our champ.
SHANE LOWRY (22/1)
An Irish Open victor as an amateur at Baltray in 2009, Lowry will relish the four days of action at Royal County Down. He has all the shots for links golf, being able to hit the ball a long way and having a deft touch around the greens. He would be a most popular winner of the event.
JAMIE DONALDSON (25/1)
The Welshman is looking for a big Northern Ireland links double, having won the Irish Open at Royal Portrush three years ago, so we know he can play links golf. Donaldson has had some good rounds of late, but not yet put four together in the same tournament. This could be the very week.
STEPHEN GALLACHER (40/1)
Being a Scot, Royal County Down will hold no fears for Gallacher, who is one of the most consistent golfers in action on the European Tour.
He has started this season steadily, but at 40/1 I like his chances of being in the mix this week.
ANIRBAN LAHIRI (66/1)
Who, I hear you say? Well, the Indian has won twice on the
European Tour this season and lies seventh on the Race to Dubai, so he’s having a great campaign. If he takes to links golf, Lahiri could be a cracking each-way bet.