It’s that time of year again, Irish Open week! If you’re Irish it means the year’s fifth major, if you’re not Irish it means listening to the dulcet tones of Ewen Murray and Wayne Riley waxing lyrical on Sky Sports about how great the Irish fans are as well as Ireland itself. (Which we wholly promote and agree with, I might add!)
And this year’s tournament is a nice reminder of the slow return to normality after what has been a COVID-plagued 16 months or so. For a tournament that usually welcomes between 80,000 to 100,000 fans and has even topped at 126,000 fans at Royal County Down, last year’s spectator-less event was in stark contrast to the reality we all know and love.
The initial venue of choice for the 2020 Irish Open was Mount Juliet in Kilkenny. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the event was postponed from late May until late September and Mount Juliet was unable to host, the new venue being Galgorm Castle in Northern Ireland.
But while American John Catlin ran out a deserved winner and Galgorm Castle was a worthy venue, the reduced prize pool, absent star power and, of course, absent fans, did take some of the shine off.
And now here we are, ready for our second Irish Open during COVID and Mount Juliet gets its second chance to host the event. The gorgeous 7,250-yard par 72 Parkland layout designed by the Golden Bear himself, Jack Nicklaus, is due to welcome up to 5,000 spectators this week.
The venue boasts some pretty incredible credentials. It hosted the Irish Open three times from ‘93-’95 when names like Sam Torrance, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Greg Norman, John Daly and Craig Stadler were commonplace. It was even the venue of choice for the WGC-American Express Championship in 2002 and 2004, where a veritable who’s who of the world’s top stars gathered including Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Sergio Garcia, just to name a few.
This year’s field is unfortunately weaker than those halcyon, pre-pandemic days but is not without its quality or storylines. There’s Rory Mcilroy, as he looks to sharpen his game ahead of the Open Championship in his quest to win his first major in 7 years. And, of course, his fellow Olympian Shane Lowry who is trying to force his way into the European Ryder Cup team in September.
What about Tommy Fleetwood whose recent form has been a far cry from the exceptional performances that saw him break into the world’s top 10 in 2019? Or Martin Kaymer who after a recent call up as vice-captain for the Ryder Cup, finished second at last week’s BMW International. Or maybe even the captain himself, Padraig Harrington, could add to his ’07 Irish Open title?
The storylines are there. It makes for very interesting reading and no doubt for even more interesting viewing as the week progresses. We have been busy trawling through the field and crunching the numbers and have picked out 5 players in particular who we think have a great chance of claiming victory.
There’s no surprise that Mcilroy would be considered a huge contender this week. He’s the star, the A-Lister, a player with more natural ability than most of us could even dream of. It has been an interesting few years for the man from Holywood, Belfast. His game of late hasn’t matched the form he produced earlier in his career, but he still retains the same glittering aura even if others have entered the spotlight such as Jon Rahm and Collin Morikawa.
Mcilroy failed to win in 2020 despite reaching the World Number 1 spot for an eighth time. He then dropped outside the world’s top ten before bouncing back and winning the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow in May and he recently finished T7th at the US Open.
Trending in the right direction, the pieces of the puzzle appear to be falling into place for Mcilroy and a second Irish Open title is the next step in his return to the top.
The scenes when Lowry won as an amateur at Baltray in 2009 were special, something that rivalled, and potentially surpassed, the recent celebrations when Mickelson claimed the PGA Championship aged 50. If Shane manages to win again this week there will be no more popular winner.
Lowry’s main drive at the moment must be to make the Ryder Cup team under the captaincy of friend and fellow Irishman, Padraig Harrington. While we get the feeling Harrington is leaning towards him as a Captain’s Pick, Lowry still needs to perform to justify it, especially with so many players competing for the coveted 12 spots.
Lowry has kicked his game up a gear recently. After an uninspiring 2020 followed by a poor start to 2021, Shane has gone on to record three top tens in his last five events, one of which was a T4th finish at the PGA Championship where he played the final round alongside Harrington.
A win this week would surely secure the 2019 Open Championship winner a place on the Ryder Cup team.
Speaking of Ryder Cup, what about Martin Kaymer? The former world number one has endured some tough times lately, not having won since 2014 and almost dropping outside of the world’s top 200 at one point.
But Kaymer is made of stern stuff. The two-time major winner and four-time Ryder Cup star would have no doubt had mixed emotions when Harrington made him a vice-captain. On one hand it’s an honour to be selected as a Ryder Cup captain, on the other he would much rather be playing.
The appointment might have given him that extra bit of motivation to achieve a 2nd place finish last week and could be the catalyst to going one better this week. Kaymer has a lot of ground to make up if he wants to play in September. He needs results and he needs them fast. Expect him to be dangerous this week.
Anyone who has followed Sam Horsfield’s career knows he is on a trajectory to achieve great things. In 2017, aged 20, he won the European Tour Q School Qualifying by 8 shots. In 2018, he started the year ranked 1925 in the world and ended it ranked 162. Since then he has won two times on the European Tour and is still only 24!
Horsfield’s best golf comes in fits and bursts of 2-3 tournaments and coming off the back of a T5th finish in Germany last week in what was his fourth top ten of the year, we reckon he could easily be a part of the mix on Sunday. While the Ryder Cup is a step too far unless something miraculous happens, a win at the Irish Open would be another great early chapter in the career of Horsfield.
Don’t know the name? Remember it. The new breed of golfer. The ultra-long hitter. And with such ease and grace it makes Bryson’s movement look unwieldly and inefficient.
Nienaber is only 21 and yet to win on the European Tour though he did finish T2nd at the 2020 Joburg Open and won earlier this year at the Dimension Data Pro-Am which was co-sanctioned by the Challenge and Sunshine Tours. He has also recently recorded a T14th finish on the PGA Tour, at the Palmetto Championship won by compatriot Garrick Higgo.
It is difficult to mention Nienaber without Higgo or vice-versa. They jostled with each other to be the top ranked amateur in South Africa and now that both are pros the comparisons will continue. Wilco will only gain confidence from Higgo’s successes and know that if his fellow countryman can do it, then so can he.
Whether or not he wins this week, his gargantuan drives are reason enough to make him one to watch.
The chips are down. The bets have been made and that wheel is starting to spin. We have named the five golfers we think have a great chance of winning this week and we will be glued to the TV as the action unfolds.
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